Case a new ordeal for crash victim

Candy Kern-Fuller, left, comforts her daughter, Lauren Grantham, after Grantham cried as she walked out of a hearing Thursday on Johns Island in which the man whose car collided head-on with hers in July pleaded guilty to careless driving and driving under suspension. Jesse Finne had been arrested on a DUI charge, and blood testing showed the active ingredient for marijuana in his system. (ANDREW KNAPP/STAFF)

After his car drifted into oncoming traffic last summer on Johns Island and collided head-on with another, Jesse Todd Finne was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.

A sheriff’s deputy who later talked with Finne, now 29, noted that he was slow to react, and his speech was slurred. Testing later showed signs of marijuana in Finne’s bloodstream.

But considering the extent of her injuries, the 28-year-old woman driving the car that Finne’s sedan hit in July on the Limehouse Memorial Bridge has puzzled over why the authorities never pursued more than misdemeanor charges against Finne.

Lauren Grantham, a James Island resident at the time, suffered a fractured spine and perforated intestines. Surgeons put two rods and nine screws in her back as she spent more than a week in a hospital. The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office deputy called her injuries “incapacitating.”

Grantham grew more frustrated, though, on Thursday as Finne pleaded guilty to an even lesser charge of careless driving, along with second-offense driving with a suspended license. Under an agreement with prosecutors, Finne will pay a $1,275 fine, but the resident of Forestwood Drive in West Ashley will avoid jail time.

Prosecutors said it would have been difficult to prove that Finne was impaired because the marijuana was at such a low level. But to Grantham and her family, the case has raised questions about whether any trace of an illegal drug should be enough to prove a driver’s intoxication.

Grantham, a College of Charleston graduate and former gymnast who said her active lifestyle has been hampered, cried and walked out of the courtroom after a magistrate accepted the plea.

“I just hoped that there would be some repercussions,” she said later. “He’s getting away with less than what some people got for speeding ... for almost killing me. It doesn’t make much sense.”

Grantham’s mother, Candy Kern-Fuller, an Upstate attorney, had pushed authorities to pursue a count of felony DUI with great bodily injury. It would have exposed Finne to between 30 days and 15 years in prison.

But Assistant Solicitor Tod Williams said he doubted that a jury would have convicted him.

The level of marijuana’s active ingredient in Finne’s blood was 2 micrograms per liter when it was tested. If it had been 1.9, Finne’s blood would have tested negative for the drug, Williams said.

Williams said he had spent time reviewing what he called an “unfortunate situation” before agreeing to the plea deal. Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she agreed with the move.

“The drug is illegal, but we still have to show he was under the influence of it,” Williams said. “This wasn’t something we took lightly. It’s very heartbreaking.”

Finne spoke little during the proceeding. His attorney, Tim Amey of North Charleston, quieted him when he balked at some points Kern-Fuller made when she asked the magistrate to reject the plea.

Amey said later, though, that evidence of his client’s impairment “simply wasn’t there.”

“Of course, anybody’s heart in any situation like this goes out to (Grantham),” Amey said. “Nobody ever wants something like that to happen.”

Finne was driving a Volvo northward on Main Road just before midnight July 12 when the car crossed the paved median, according to a sheriff’s crash report.

Grantham was southbound on the Stono River bridge when headlights pulled into her path. Her Toyota veered to avoid a collision, but it was too late.

The impact was so great that the handle snapped off a cast iron pan in Grantham’s trunk, her mother said. It did about $10,000 in damage to Finne’s Volvo and $15,000 to Grantham’s Toyota.

Finne couldn’t remember what had happened, and he felt as though he had just woken up “from a dream,” he told a deputy.

The deputy determined at Medical University Hospital, where Finne was examined for minor bruises on his chest, that narcotics had likely “materially and appreciably” impaired his ability to drive, the report stated. Finne agreed to give a sample of his blood, and he was arrested.

At the time, he also had been wanted for failing to appear for a court date in a December 2013 arrest on felony and misdemeanor drug charges.

In that run-in with the Charleston Police Department, officers said in a report that he had been inside a Mazda that was parked outside a West Ashley gas station for 30 minutes. They said his car smelled of marijuana, and when Finne got out, his “entire body” was “shaking uncontrollably.”

Inside, police said they found 28 grams of marijuana, plastic bags, scales, $430 in cash and a .45-caliber pistol. Charges are still pending in that case.

After the crash with Grantham, Finne spent six days behind bars before posting bail.

Grantham was still hospitalized then. Unable to speak when she woke up from surgery, she first wrote a note to her husband and apologized for not looking like she did on their wedding day in September 2013.

Her mother said her second note was a testament to the kind of person she is. It asked, “How’s the other guy?”

Grantham and her mother contended that evidence in the case could have supported Finne’s DUI prosecution.

Kern-Fuller said the drug level shown in his blood would have been higher if the sample hadn’t been drawn 21/2 hours after the wreck.

When she stepped in front of Magistrate Leroy Linen during Thursday’s hearing, Kern-Fuller said Finne had shown a pattern of driving without license. She also mentioned social media postings by Finne that referred to marijuana and mushrooms before his attorney objected and said Kern-Fuller was “trying to try the case on behalf of the prosecutor.”

After halting her statement, Linen told Kern-Fuller that he knew “your daughter’s hurt and you’re just trying to look after her best interest.” He suggested that the family pursue a civil case, though Kern-Fuller said money would never repair the damage done to Grantham’s life.

But the magistrate said he couldn’t reject the plea that had been hashed out by Williams and Amey.

“They are the ones who are going to present this case and argue it,” Linen said. “I more or less have to accept what has been discussed between ... both sides.”

Grantham’s husband, Michael, pulled his wife into his chest as she wept outside the courthouse on Main Road, the same street where Grantham said her life had changed forever.

An 8-inch scar on her stomach and another on her back serve as reminders of that day.

Her mother kissed her daughter’s forehead after Grantham said the experience had shaken her belief in the justice system. “I can’t get justice for my child,” Kern-Fuller said. “It’s frustrating, and it gets more and more frustrating.”

Grantham, a public health and physical education major in college, struggles to work out at the gym and do the outdoor activities she had planned with her husband.

Grantham, who had been a veterinary technician at Pet Helpers before the wreck, moved earlier this month to Savannah to get a “fresh start.”

“It’s infuriating,” her husband said, “that we have to start crossing off things from the list of things that we can do together.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.