Posted on June 27, 2012 at 7:31 AM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ricky Stacks was convicted Tuesday of misdemeanor death by vehicle in connection with the November 2011 death of Davidson College professor Robert Whitton.
Whitton was walking across the street in a crosswalk near campus when he was struck by Stacks’ Jeep SUV. The 67-year-old professor died about a week later.
Mecklenburg District Judge Theo Nixon did not jail or fine Stacks. He did so on condition that Stacks pay $190 in court costs. Misdemeanor death by vehicle carries a punishment ranging from probation to 150 days in jail.
Amy Diamond, Whitton’s widow, stood near prosecutors and spoke to Stacks after his conviction.
“I want you to know our family has suffered a tremendous loss,” she said. “I want you to also know we bear no malice … Please know it was an accident.”
Stacks, 40, of Concord, was crying when he turned to speak to Diamond. “I’m sorry this ever happened,” he said. “I’m a father. I have four kids … I hurt for you all. I’m so sorry.”
Whitton was walking home in the rain and had stepped into a crosswalk on Concord Road when he was struck by the vehicle. A Charlotte native, Whitton graduated from Myers Park High School and earned his undergraduate degree in mathematics from Davidson in 1966.
Whitton’s title at Davidson was “visiting associate professor of mathematics,” but he’d been teaching there off and on since 1979, and steadily since 1994. He’d earned a reputation as a caring instructor.
In 2010, the college’s Student Government Association gave him the faculty award – presented to one professor each year.
The award read: “Robert Whitton is a great teacher in and out of the classroom. While in class, he has a sense of humor that keeps students engaged, and his office hours are even better. He meets students at the Alvarez College Union, and welcomes their e-mail. And he always gets back to them before class time! He cares so much about the students and this school.”
During Tuesday’s trial, Ellyn Baeszler, who witnessed the fatal accident and testified for the prosecution, described how Stacks was crying at the scene.
“He was very upset,” Baeszler recalled. “He said, ‘I never saw him.’ He kept repeating ‘I never saw him.’ ”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police detective Matt Sammis, an accident reconstruction expert, testified that Stacks was traveling between 23 mph and 28 mph when his vehicle struck Whitton. The speed limit was 25 mph.
Defense lawyers focused much of their evidence on the driving conditions that night: It was dark, it was raining and visibility was poor.
“It was just hard to see,” one defense witness recalled.
During closing arguments, defense attorney Katie Clary reminded the judge that Whitton was wearing dark clothing on the rainy night.
She also told the judge that the town of Davidson had made improvements to the crosswalk where Whitton was fatally injured. At the time of the accident, the crosswalk sign was 75 feet away from the crosswalk. A crosswalk sign is now in the road in middle of the crosswalk.
“This was an accident – not a criminal act,” Clary said. “A very unfortunate accident.”
But Assistant District Attorney Nathan Brooks told the judge that Stacks was familiar with the area and had failed to yield to Whitton. “He was in a clearly marked crosswalk,” the prosecutor said.