The actions of a Texarkana driver before a crash that killed a family of four in 2015 did not amount to criminal negligence, the Arkansas Supreme Court determined Thursday in overturning the man's four convictions for negligent homicide.
The 4-3 decision marks the second time the state's highest court has reviewed the charges against Benjamin Ward Ledwell. In 2016, the court unanimously reversed a lower court's decision to dismiss the case for surpassing the statute of limitations from the May 19, 2015 crash.
Ledwell was driving a pickup north on Arkansas 7 in Hot Spring County that day when he drifted into the southbound lane and collided with a minivan, killing Cindy and Allen Rhein, along with their two children, Steven Sprankle and Anthony Sprankle.
According to vehicle data obtained by Arkansas State Police investigators, Ledwell had not braked before the crash, but in the final seconds had let up on the accelerator and attempted to steer back into his own lane.
Ledwell later stated that he had been reaching for something on the floorboard of his truck just before the crash.
In 2018, after the Supreme Court reinvested jurisdiction to the trial court, a Hot Spring County jury convicted Ledwell of four counts of negligent homicide and gave him a suspended sentence.
Ledwell appealed that sentence to the Supreme Court, arguing that the judge should have ruled from the bench and dismissed the charges.
Writing for the majority, Justice Rhonda Wood agreed, stating that Ledwell's conduct did not amount to a "gross deviation" from the standard of care required of a driver.
"There was no evidence that he was speeding, driving erratically, under the influence of alcohol, or using a phone," Wood wrote, adding that Ledwell did not receive a traffic citation for the accident.
Wood's opinion to overturn Ledwell's convictions and dismiss the case was joined by Chief Justice Dan Kemp and Justices Karen Baker and Josephine "Jo" Hart.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Shawn Womack wrote that Ledwell "was driving erratically," and that his convictions should be upheld.
"The facts establish that while negotiating a curve on a rural, two-lane highway, Ledwell leaned over to pick up something off the floorboard and swerved into the left land in violation of Arkansas traffic law," Womack wrote.
Womack's dissent was joined by Justices Courtney Hudson and Robin Wynne.
Ledwell's attorney did not respond to a message seeking comment on Thursday.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement that Rutledge disagreed with the decision and found the dissenting opinion to be correct.
Metro on 11/15/2019
Print Headline: Decision reversed in collision on Arkansas highway that killed family of 4; court says driver wasn’t negligent