Man cleared in wheelchair-accident death

Published 9:54 pm Monday, May 10, 2010

A man whose vehicle struck and fatally injured a wheelchair-bound 64-year-old woman on a stormy evening in March will not be charged in connection with the incident, according Suffolk Commonwealth’s Attorney C. Phillips Ferguson.

Forty-year-old Portsmouth resident Ramashani Bakari was traveling east in his Chevrolet Tahoe on W. Constance Road in “atrocious” weather conditions when he struck Betty Jean Artis, who was in a motorized wheelchair, crossing the road in the pedestrian crosswalk, according to an account by Ferguson’s office.

“This case was a very unfortunate tragedy,” Ferguson wrote in a letter to the Suffolk Police Department. “It would have been nearly impossible for Bakari to have seen Artis in time to avoid the collision.

“There was no criminal negligence on the part of Bakari, and this Office will not pursue criminal or traffic charges against him.”

Heavy rain, high winds and the resulting glare on the street from streetlights “would have made it very difficult for Bakari to have seen Artis in the crosswalk,” as her wheelchair lacked both lights and reflective material that would have made her visible, prosecutors ruled.

Bakari told police that he was traveling between 20 and 25 mph when he struck Artis and that he did not know she was in the road until he heard the impact. The speed limit in the area is 35 mph, and the investigation revealed no evidence that Bakari had been speeding, Ferguson stated in his account.

The only eyewitness to the incident, James T. Scott, had seen Artis entering the crosswalk prior to the accident and then stopped his vehicle and began flashing his high beams to warn approaching drivers, according to Ferguson. Scott told police that three eastbound cars passed him without slowing prior to the impact.

Bakari struck the woman as she reached the middle of the eastbound lane. The impact threw her to the side of the road and wedged her wheelchair under his front bumper.

Ferguson’s office declined to pursue a charge of driving on a suspended license, because the restricted license he was operating under after a DUI conviction allowed him to drive to and from visitation with his children. Bakari had just picked the children up from their mother’s home, his ignition interlock system had operated correctly and he was heading back to Portsmouth at the time of the accident, Ferguson said the investigation revealed.

Artis, of Chorey Park Apartments on West Constance Road, was crossing in the 800 block of that road, returning from the Plaza West Shopping Center, when she was struck at about 6:45 p.m. She suffered head trauma, and died later at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.