John Ludwig: Murderer?
John Ludwig probably expected to be in some amount of trouble when he stepped out of his crumpled Maserti. He probably figured he was in for a tough year when he realized he’d just traveled through a house and killed a man. At no point until the last 48 hours, however, could Ludwig have thought he’d be in jail on murder charges.
I wrote a bit about Ludwig yesterday and described how he allegedly drove his Maserati through a house. I predicted he would face a huge civil case and never stand before a jury on any future criminal charges. I’ll stand by that assertion and explain why in a minute. First, however, we have to understand how he could be charged with murder in the first place.
Thirteenth Circuit Solicitor Bob Ariail could’ve charged Ludwig with just about anything. Today he chose murder, a charge he called, according to WYFF, “a tough sell.”
Well, no kidding.
No matter how much you might hate Ludwig, proving malice aforethought when it comes to accidentally driving a car through a house is going to be tough for the prosecutor. There is precedent, but this ain’t going to be an easy road for Ariail or his team. Ariail is hanging his hat on what he termed “malice inferred by gross negligence.”
There will be many a debate over whether Ariail has done the right thing here. First off, we don’t know what Ariail knows. As the circuit’s chief prosecutor, he had a right to see a lot more information before we folks in the public do. He might have a lot more ammo in his arsenal than we know about. It may be enough to justify the strongest possible charge in this case.
There will be those people, however, who say Ariail has overcharged Ludwig. That protest will come from both sides. Ludwig’s supporters will certainly say it, and I suspect there will be those Ludwig opponents who might ask if Ariail is setting himself up to fail. Worse, they might ask what happens if Ariail does, in fact, fail to convince a jury that Ludwig was so grossly negligent in his recklessness that we can infer malice from his actions, and hence, believe beyond a reasonable doubt that he killed with malice aforethought.
Although Ariail’s high profile cases are usually rock solid, this is not the first time he has taken a huge case to war with less than a full clip. About nine years ago, Ariail prosecuted a young man named Cory Harris for the murder of Greenville County Deputy Marcus Whitfield. Whitfield died outside a Waffle House after responding to a shots fired call. Harris and another young man were driving out of the parking lot when the deputies arrived. Harris was presumably try escape the trouble that was brewing in a big crowd of ne’er-do-wells behind the restaurant, but prosecutors implied no small amount of malice on Harris’ part. His front bumper clipped one deputy’s knee. The next thing anybody knew, bullets were everywhere. Two deputies were shot and one of them, Whitfield, died.
Ariail could never prove that Harris had fired a shot or that there had been any malice involved. So, the prosecutor offered the jury an either/or scenario. Ariail suggested that either Harris had killed Whitfield or he had caused the third deputy, Lee Pack1, to shoot Whitfield. Although presented well, it was not as easy bite for the jury to swallow. Trying to justify the whole “beyond a reasonable doubt” element with “either this or that” wasn’t easy. The jury refused to convict on murder charges and instead sent back involuntary manslaughter and assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. Harris ended up getting 25 years, anyway.
The Ludwig case is obviously a lot different, but the struggle will be all the same for Ariail. Involuntary manslaughter is still a lesser included offense when trying a murder charge and probably makes a lot more sense. It only requires criminal negligence, which in this case need only be defined as the reckless disregard for others’ safety. Max sentence? Five years.
The murder charge is going to make Ludwig’s opponents happy, but it could end up setting him free. Some juries might be offended by such a big charge and just acquit. In the end, it will probably behoove both sides to take this case to a conference room instead of a courtroom. Ludwig and attorney Billy Wilkins don’t want to face the ugly mobs and Ariail almost certainly doesn’t want to lose. So, for the time being, I’ll stick by my prediction that Ludwig settles this civilly and criminally without the need for a jury.
If he should be so bold, however, as to fight to the end, see the above paragraph about less included offenses.
Justice may be blind, but that doesn’t mean she’s easy.
1: I saw Lee Pack years later in an illegal underground poker room. We didn’t speak. I was left to assume he was no longer in law enforcement.
Photo courtesy: WYFF4.com