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West Virginia officer will not face charges for striking, killing 13-year-old with cruiser off-duty

CHARLESTON W.Va. (AP) — An off-duty deputy sheriff in West Virginia who struck and killed a 13-year-old girl with his marked cruiser last year will not face criminal charges in her death, according to the prosecutor investigating the case.

Special Prosecutor for Cabell County Mark Sorsaia determined the “tragic loss” of 13-year-old Jacqueline “Laney” Hudson in December 2022 was a “direct result” of her own erratic behavior while under the influence of alcohol and marijuana, according to a letter dated Thursday clearing former Cabell County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeffrey Racer of negligence.

That “severely affected her judgement and ability to make rational decisions, and subsequently led to her running in front of the car," wrote Sorsaia, who is also prosecutor in Putnam County.

But Hudson family lawyer Tyler Haslam said they still have questions that need answering. For one, they want to know how fast the off-duty deputy was driving in the marked sheriff's department cruiser when it struck her.

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A state police accident reconstruction expert could not precisely determine how fast the cruiser was moving when it struck Hudson because its “black box” — which usually records that information — did not activate, according to Sorsaia.

The family was not surprised by the prosecutor's decision, they said in a statement provided by their attorney Friday.

“Racer’s actions precipitated the vehicular death of a juvenile pedestrian and left a family heartbroken,” her family wrote. “Despite our disappointment about the special prosecutor’s decision, we remain steadfast in our pursuit of justice.”

The family said they “look forward to reviewing the State’s full investigation once it is released in order to compare it to our own.”

Hudson was killed on December 30, 2022 just after 10:30 p.m. in the state’s second largest city of Huntington — populated by just under 50,000 — where she was hanging out at an intersection in a group of teenagers.

Racer, who was placed on administrative leave following Hudson’s death and resigned months later, was driving his cruiser after hours because he was staying overnight at his girlfriend's house and needed it for work in the morning, the prosecutor said.

Racer drove through the green light at the intersection when Hudson and another teen ran into the roadway, Sorsaia said. He tried stop, but was unable to avoid hitting Hudson. The other child was not injured. Racer stayed on the scene and called 911, according to the prosecutor.

A subsequent autopsy found that Hudson had alcohol and marijuana in her system when she died, according to Sorsaia. Law enforcement officials said Hudson was intoxicated from drinking beer and smoking synthetic marijuana — commonly known as K2 or spice — and was “significantly impaired” when she ran into the street in front of Racer's vehicle.

A video taken off Hudson's phone by state police after her death showed the kids running around in the street by the intersection prior to the crash.

“It is commonly known in law enforcement circles that when a young person smokes marijuana laced with K2, it can severely impact their behavior, impair their judgement and their physical actions,” Sorsaia wrote.

Two sobriety tests — including a preliminary breath test resulting in a .000 blood alcohol level — found that there was “no sign of impairment” in Racer's case.

The prosecutor found no cause for Racer to be charged under the state's negligent homicide statute, which requires evidence of driving with “willful wanton disregard of the safety of others."

Even if he was speeding, that wouldn't justify a negligent homicide charge, Sorsaia said.

“There must be a conscious decision made where one would know they are putting other lives at risk,” he wrote.

Estimates by state police reconstruction teams analyzing skid marks and other factors placed Racer’s speed between 47 and 55 miles per hour — at least 10 to 20 miles per hour over the speed limit.

Sorsaia said 49 miles per hour was the median speed in February when law enforcement conducted an hour-long radar survey of 63 vehicles passing through the intersection where Hudson died.

Even if the survey doesn't eliminate the possibility that Racer was speeding, it indicated his speed was "well within the average speed limits used by individuals using that particular location on the roadway," Sorsaia concluded.

Haslam, the attorney representing Hudson’s family, said his firm is conduction their own investigation and analyzing law enforcement's findings.

“Quite frankly, I don’t care what the average speed is through that intersection. There’s a posted speed limit," he told The Associated Press Friday. "We expect all citizens, but particularly those in marked patrol vehicles, to go the speed limit, absent some emergency. Very clearly from the report that came out yesterday, there was no emergency."

A negligent homicide conviction could have come with a penalty of a year of incarceration, a $100 to $1,000 fine, or both. Racer's driver's license would have been revoked.