By MELINDA WILLIAMS
Sharon Marie and Mark Andrew Tate planned to celebrate their 22nd wedding anniversary and 25th class reunion during homecoming weekend at their alma mater, Emory & Henry College in Abingdon.
But what was supposed to be a happy weekend “turned into a nightmare,” Mark Tate testified Monday in the case of a commercial truck driver charged in a crash that claimed Sharon Tate’s life Oct. 18, 2012.
Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Marcus Long Jr. convicted 47-year-old Manrajbir Singh Kang of reckless driving Monday. He ordered Kang to serve nine months in jail and pay a $2,500 fine. He also will lose his commercial drivers license and job.
Judge Long referred to Kang’s version of the wreck as being “on the incredible side,” and he later added, “I’m not sure if that’s what he (Kang) believes (happened) or if it’s what he’s saying because he thinks it will help him.”
Following approximately three hours of testimony, Judge Long decided to take a five-minute recess to “reflect on” his notes before imposing sentence. “I want to make sure I do the right thing,” he said.
According to Virginia State Police testimony, Tate and her 2004 Ford Escape were “crushed” when Kang’s tractor-trailer struck the rear of the Escape and shoved it underneath the trailer of another commercial truck. The wreck occurred in a work zone on Interstate 81, where traffic had come to a standstill.
State Trooper Robert Church said Kang had a half-mile sight distance in a straight stretch to see that traffic had stopped. Plus, prosecution evidence showed an electronic sign almost three miles before the wreck scene warned motorists of the upcoming work zone and that the left lane was closed.
Kang told police after the wreck that he was in the process of moving into the left southbound lane when Tate pulled into the left lane in front of him, Church testified. However, the officer said Tate’s car was in the right lane, underneath the trailer of another commercial truck that was also in the right lane.
State Police contend Tate’s car and the other truck were stopped behind traffic when Kang realized too late that they were stopped. They say Kang swerved into the left lane in an effort to avoid hitting Tate’s car, but the front right of his rig caught the left rear of the Escape, shoving it 38 feet and underneath the other truck.
Trooper James Vaughan said Kang’s truck left a little more than 60 feet of skid marks on the roadway prior to the impact, then left 111 feet of skid marks in the left lane before running into the median. He said the truck traveled another 179 feet in the median before the trailer came loose from the truck. The trailer then slid 32 feet after turning onto its side.
Vaughan estimated the truck was traveling “pretty close to the speed limit” (70 miles per hour) when the wreck occurred.
Through an interpreter, Kang said he was traveling about 60 miles per hour before seeing the work zone sign. He testified that he saw the brake lights activate on the other truck, so he applied his brakes, but Tate’s vehicle cut into the right lane in front of him.
“I tried to go to the left lane to save her,” Kang told the court.
Earlier, Kang told Judge Long, “I tried my best to avoid that accident, but in a split second it happened. Within a second I was trying to control a vehicle that weighs 78,000 pounds. I was unable to save Mrs. Tate.”
The Indian-born father of three said his heart hurts for Tate’s family. He said he came to the United States in 2001 and has been driving trucks since 2002. Since the wreck, he has taken a driver improvement course.
The defense presented the court with a letter from the head of Kang’s temple and a letter Kang wrote to the judge. Kang’s son translated that letter to English, according to testimony.
Since he required a translator for Monday’s trial, Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Fleenor asked Kang whether he is able to read English. Kang said he is able to read “some of it,” including highway signs.
Defense attorney Bev Davis said the prosecution’s evidence failed to show Kang’s actions met the requirements for reckless driving.
“He decided the best way to avoid an accident was to swerve to the left,” Davis said. “We’ve all been there, where someone tries to go a little farther (in the left lane) and then tries to safely cut over (into the right lane).
“It’s very sad, but nothing can change the fact Mrs. Tate is not here. Sometimes accidents happen and an accident is not cause for reckless driving.”
Fleenor agreed accidents do happen. He said if Kang had been driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol or had operated the truck with willful disregard for the public’s safety he would have been charged with manslaughter, not reckless driving. “Driver inattention is reckless driving, no more, no less,” he added.
Judge Long said the prosecution’s evidence didn’t stop with the State Police testimony. He pointed out written statements from six witnesses were presented to the court and noted that the driver of the other truck indicated Tate was stopped behind his truck when Kang’s truck “plowed into them. She was sitting still just like the truck she went under.”
Even though Kang wasn’t exceeding the speed limit, the judge said motorists must drive their vehicles in accordance with the road conditions. He said there clearly was a sign warning of the lane closure and Kang had half a mile sight distance to see traffic was stopped.
Finding Kang guilty of reckless driving, Judge Long said Tate “was killed as the result of his inattention and recklessness. He was driving too fast and wasn’t attentive to the road conditions.”
In his victim impact statement to the court, Mark Tate said, “anger, depression, loss and disappointment can’t encompass the many feelings inside of me. I lost my wife of 22 years and my best friend of 29 years.”
A member of the Army Special Operations Command, Tate said his wife had just retired from the Navy, where she served two deployments to Iraq, and was working for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency when she died. He explained that her job entailed locating the remains of soldiers from prior wars and accompanying the remains to the soldiers’ families. “But she didn’t see it as a job, she saw it as an honor and privilege,” Tate said, fighting back tears.
When they met on their first day of college, he said, he was “a drunk with no plans for the future,” but she saw something in him he didn’t see in himself and turned his life around. Since her death, he said he has battled depression and started drinking again for the first time since 1978. With the help of family and friends he has stopped drinking again and added, “I hope it sticks this time.”
Tate said he doesn’t fully understand the difference between reckless driving and manslaughter, but he asked the judge to impose the maximum sentence to hold Kang accountable for his actions.
To Kang, Tate said, “I heard your apology, but unfortunately I’m not able to forgive you at this point.”
Asked if he would like to say anything else before sentencing, Kang responded, “I’m very remorseful, very sorry.”
“I appreciate that and I believe that,” Judge Long said. “I understand you’ll lose your job, but he lost his wife. When you’re driving a vehicle like an 18-wheeler, you’ve got to be careful. Your inattention and actions caused the loss of a good human being.”
After the sentence was imposed, Davis asked if Kang could report to jail at a later date.
Judge Long said “No, I haven’t done that for anyone else today and I’m not going to start it now. He had to know there was a chance he would be going to jail.”
Some of the approximately two-dozen friends and family who came to support Kang wept as he was led away by bailiffs.