LUMBERTON — The family and friends of a man who was struck and killed by a car in Robeson County are publicly criticizing the District Attorney’s Office for what they believe is a lenient charge and punishment for the woman driving the car that killed him.
The criticism has included a full-paid advertisement in The Robesonian, and a billboard on Second Street, both at a total cost of about $4,000.
Steve Bauer, then 56, of Woodbridge, Va., was walking with traffic in the southbound lane of Interstate 95 near the state line just after 6 a.m. on May 27, 2011, when a 2011 Cadillac driven by Lori Lawrence, then 49, exited the right side of the road and struck Bauer.
According to a state Highway Patrol report, Lawrence, who was alone, was traveling the posted 65-mph speed limit. District Attorney Johnson Britt said she fell asleep while on a trip from New York to Florida.
She was originally charged with misdemeanor death by vehicle, and failure to maintain lane control. Britt said he was asked by Lawrence’s attorney to consider that Bauer’s death was an accident, that Lawrence had no prior driving history and that her insurance carrier did not contest liability and had paid its limits on her liability insurance policy to Bauer’s brother. Britt offered to drop the charge to failure to maintain lane control and, in exchange for a plea, to dismiss the misdemeanor death by vehicle charge.
The advertisement in The Robesonian, titled “Shame D.A. Britt, Justice for Steve Bauer,” appeared in Tuesday’s edition. It included a picture of Bauer and a letter to the “citizens of Robeson County.” A message on a billboard on East Second Street near N.C. 41 went up Thursday.
According to George Broder, who was friends with Bauer for more than 50 years, Bauer was traveling to South Carolina to see some friends and had run out of gasoline near the state line.
“Since when is a shoulder a lane?” Broder, who lives in California, said during an interview. “That’s one question, and beyond that, where’s reckless driving? Where’s accidental vehicular manslaughter? Where’s driving irresponsibly? There’s other charges there that she could have been held accountable for.”
Lawrence entered a “plea of responsible” through her attorney, and District Court Judge William Jeffrey Moore entered a prayer for judgment continued, with judgment dependent on Lawrence paying the court costs, Britt said.
“The bottom line, this was an accident. … To elevate it beyond what it was, there was no evidence to do so,” Britt said, adding that to elevate the charge from misdemeanor death to involuntary manslaughter he would have to show gross negligence in Lawrence’s operation of the vehicle.
“I am the state’s attorney, so there are decisions I make in that capacity that do not sit well with the individuals who are the victims of the crime,” he said. “They may not agree with the decisions we make trying to dispose of cases short of going to trial.”
The 11-foot by 23-foot sign will remain on Second Street for about a month, Broder said. The cost, about $1,000, is covered by about 20 friends and relatives of Bauer who have assembled a Facebook page for their campaign, “Steve Bauer Justice.”
“We wanted a billboard as close as I could get it to the county courthouse,” said Broder, the son of the late David Broder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who worked for more than 40 years for the Washington Post. “The theory being, people that work at the courthouse are gonna be driving by that. … If it’s close enough, he (Britt) is gonna hear about it.”
Britt had heard about it — and seen it — when interviewed Thursday. He said such criticism goes with the territory of his job.
“Have I been the subject of criticism? Yeah. And I’ve been the subject from Day 1,” he said. “I’ll be the subject of criticism until the day I leave here.”
Broder said he has not spoken with Britt directly. According to Broder, the final judgment came in October. Bauer’s family and friends found out in January and were “outraged” at the “denial of justice.”
“We were dismayed, angry, outraged that Steve’s life had been valued at $210,” he said. “That’s the court costs. No fines, no penalties, no points on her driver’s license, no suspension of the driver’s license. We were appalled … . His life was worth more than $210. He shouldn’t be viewed as road kill.”
Britt said such decisions are difficult and frequent. He pointed out that Robeson County had seen six traffic fatalities in the two weeks before the ad ran Tuesday.
“It’s a situation where I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t,” he said. “I can’t make everybody happy, and I don’t attempt to make everybody happy. I didn’t set the value of his life, contrary to what they put in there.”
According to Volusia County, Fla., public records, Lawrence was charged in January with battery by strangulation. She could not be reached for comment for this story.