Man says he couldn't stop SUV

James Doucette (left) and James Hines were killed when they were hit by an SUV in Mount Pleasant.

MOUNT PLEASANT -- After Charles McDonald plowed his Ford Explorer into two motorcyclists at a red light on May 11, witnesses heard him say he had been unable to stop, authorities said.

McDonald told police his sport utility vehicle had been in the shop for brake problems about a month before he struck and killed the motorcyclists on U.S. Highway 17 at Anna Knapp Boulevard, Mount Pleasant police Capt. Stan Gragg said.

Gragg said police obtained the vehicle's service records from May 6 on Wednesday -- the day after deciding McDonald would face no criminal charges but would be issued a traffic citation in the deadly wreck.

"The vehicle was in the shop and we have the service records that show it was functioning properly," Gragg said. "We also had a certified mechanic check the brakes after the accident and they appeared to be in working order."

On Wednesday evening, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said police had informed her Tuesday that McDonald was involved in another recent rear-end collision in the Explorer, in which he said his brakes malfunctioned.

"I know that he was involved in another collision back in December," Gragg said. "It had nothing to do with this investigation."

McDonald and his attorney, Lionel Lofton, could not be reached with questions about the previous incident.

Regarding the fatal crash last week, McDonald's wife, Melanie, said earlier Wednesday that insurance company investigators were examining the vehicle to determine if a brake malfunction played a role in the crash.

"We understand that a lot of folks out there want answers, and we do, too," she said, adding that her husband was too distraught to discuss the wreck.

Her comments came one day after police announced that McDonald, 38, of Meggett won't face criminal charges in the wreck that killed James Doucette, 80, of Port Charlotte, Fla., and his son-in-law James Hines, 50, of Yaphank, N.Y. Investigators opted instead to cite McDonald for traveling too fast for conditions, a minor traffic violation.

The decision, announced around the same time Hines' funeral was being held, shocked and disappointed his family and outraged many in the greater Charleston area.

"Two people's lives were worth a speeding ticket and a slap on the wrist?" said Catherine Hines, James Hines's mother. "It's just not fair."

His father, a retired New York City police officer, said he was stunned police didn't charge McDonald with something stronger. "I don't know how they can possibly let it slide like this," James J. Hines said.

Gragg said police feel for the victims' families, but a thorough investigation found that McDonald's actions "didn't rise to the level of any other charges" under the law. Police said they consulted with the 9th Circuit Solicitor's Office on Tuesday before deciding against pursuing criminal charges in the case.

The crash occurred around 11:30 a.m. as Hines and Doucette were stopped, side-by-side, at a red light. McDonald's Explorer struck the two motorcycles, then a truck, which in turn hit another vehicle, according to police statements and reports.

A police report says McDonald was going the speed limit, 45 mph, when he struck the stopped vehicles. The report lists "driving too fast for conditions" and "distraction/inattention" as contributing factors in the crash.

Gragg said records showed McDonald was on his cell phone around the time of the crash but not when the wreck occurred.

"We don't have any indication cell-phone use played a part in the accident," Gragg said.

Police had no reason to believe alcohol or drugs were involved in the incident, and did not have cause to test McDonald, Gragg said. Under South Carolina law, police can only require blood or urine tests when there is clear suspicion of driving under the influence, he said.

Wilson said she didn't know police planned to make a decision on charges within hours of meeting with her Tuesday. But based on the summary of the case police shared with her, she supported their conclusion that municipal citations were more appropriate than pursuing criminal charges, she said.

Wilson said one witness told police she was driving beside McDonald's SUV and grew concerned that the Explorer wasn't slowing down with the rest of traffic as it approached the light. The woman blew her horn to alert McDonald, but it didn't help. After the crash, the woman asked him what happened and McDonald said, "I couldn't stop it," Wilson said.

Other witnesses also heard McDonald make that proclamation, Wilson said.

Police have refused to release the witness statements, citing an open investigation. But South Carolina Press Association attorney Jay Bender said the records are a matter of public record.

To rise to the level of reckless homicide or involuntary manslaughter, there needs be some evidence of wanton or willful disregard for risks and the safety of others, such as driving under the influence, drag racing or running from blue lights, authorities said. This case didn't have that, Wilson said.

Miller Shealy, a professor at the Charleston School of Law and a former prosecutor, said a driver generally has to demonstrate gross recklessness to warrant criminal charges. Someone taking their eyes off the road to reach for something or becoming momentarily distracted wouldn't meet that standard. South Carolina's laws are not unusual in that regard, he said.

This case appears to fall more in the realm of driver negligence that could spur a civil lawsuit, Shealy said.

Still, a good number of people remain incensed by the police decision. Several called police Wednesday to express their displeasure, Gragg said.

Ed Bonham, director of the Charleston chapter of the Harley Owners Group, said he expects the case to be a prime topic at his group's next meeting.

"It's just insane," he said. "It's almost like the law is saying we don't put too much stake into the laws for those riding motorcycles. It's just wrong."

Mount Pleasant resident and Harley owner Deborah Parrish said she thinks police would have come down harder on the driver if the victims had been in cars instead of on motorcycles. "Motorcycle people are absolutely outraged," she said.

James Hines, a father of two teenage children, had wanted a motorcycle for a long time and was thrilled to head to South Carolina with a group of co-workers from the U.S. Postal Service, his parents said. Doucette and another son-in-law drove up from Florida to meet them. The rest of the group was waiting for Hines and Doucette to clear the red light when the crash occurred, they said.

Jacquie Doucette Spudis, who lost her father and brother-in-law in the crash, said Mount Pleasant police briefed her and her husband, who is a police officer, on the reasons behind the lack of charges. They understood the reasoning from a purely legal perspective, but it still didn't seem right. "We are very disappointed with the outcome," she said.