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Archive for Thursday, January 7, 1999

JURY CONVICTS EUDORA TEEN IN FATAL CRASH

January 7, 1999

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Witnesses for the prosecution and defense differed greatly on how fast a Eudora teen-ager was driving when the car rolled over, killing a 16-year-old girl a year ago.

A jury deliberating an involuntary manslaughter charge against an 18-year-old Eudora man instead convicted him on a lesser misdemeanor charge of vehicular homicide Wednesday.

Jonathan K. Cohen was 17 on Jan. 10, 1998, when the accident occurred on North 1500 Road four miles east of Lawrence. The car he was driving -- a Douglas County Sheriff's detective estimated it was traveling up to 80 mph -- skidded on the gravel road and rolled in a ditch. Nicole M. Peda, a 16-year-old Eudora passenger in the car, died at the scene.

Peggy Kittel, Cohen's attorney, said her client may have been driving faster than the road conditions warranted on the 55 mph stretch of road, but he wasn't driving recklessly.

Prosecutors were required to prove reckless driving for the involuntary manslaughter charge.

"I think what he was found responsible for more accurately reflects what happened," Kittel said, "which is a teen-age boy was driving down a country road with his friends and he had an accident."

In her closing statements Wednesday afternoon, however, prosecutor Shelley Diehl said Cohen tried to deflect blame, even telling paramedics at the scene that he wasn't the driver.

Cohen, Diehl noted, also told a deputy he was traveling between 35 and 40 mph, much less than the 75 to 80 mph estimated after the accident was reconstructed by sheriff's officials.

"There is an explanation for this wreck," Diehl said. "There is an explanation for Nicole Peda's death. Look at (Cohen's) driving, look at this in its entirety."

Kittel pointed out that there had been accidents on the road, which recently had been graveled, before and after the fatality. Weeks after Peda's death, Douglas County commissioners voted to lower the speed limit on the road from 55 mph to 40 mph.

Cohen, who was tried as a juvenile, will be sentenced Feb. 12.

Diehl said the state's sentencing guidelines, revised in 1993, don't apply to juveniles, and a pre-sentence investigation will recommend probation or a term in a correctional facility.

Cohen declined to comment on the jury's decision, as did Tracy Peda, Nicole's mother.

-- Chris Koger's phone message number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is ckoger@ljworld.com.

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