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Published: Friday, 6/15/2007

Court ruling hurts crash victim anew

BY CLYDE HUGHES
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Vena Lampkin, permanently disabled in an accident in Toledo last year, plays with her young daughter Rashyra. Vena Lampkin, permanently disabled in an accident in Toledo last year, plays with her young daughter Rashyra.
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It's a mother's worst nightmare come true.

Kim Lampkin watched her daughter Vena leave home about midnight on July 12 to pick up a friend and drop him off to another location, telling her mother she would be right back.

Some 10 hours later, Kim Lampkin was frantically calling friends, relatives, and then finally hospitals to see if anyone had information about her daughter. She found her in the intensive care unit of Toledo Hospital.

The conviction and sentencing last week of Donnell Ray Caldwell, 37, of 3567 Stickney Ave. for a head-on collision on Stickney with Vena Lampkin's vehicle was supposed to bring closure for mother and daughter.

Kim Lampkin helps her daughter, Vena, navigate with the aid of a walker. The driver in the crash was sentenced to six months of monitoring and five years of community control. Kim Lampkin helps her daughter, Vena, navigate with the aid of a walker. The driver in the crash was sentenced to six months of monitoring and five years of community control.
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They said, though, it has ripped open the wounds suffered the night of the accident that left the younger Ms. Lampkin's body shattered.

Caldwell, who police believe may have been drinking and who left the scene of the accident before authorities arrived, was sentenced to six months of electronic monitoring and five years of community control by Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Gene Zmuda. His driver's license was suspended for four years.

Caldwell, who was convicted on two counts of aggravated assault, could have received as much as 36 months in prison and been fined up to $10,000.

"We are devastated and hurt," said Kim Lampkin, 42, in a telephone interview from the family's new home in Atlanta. "The justice system in Toledo, Ohio, is just not worth it. People who do minor stuff get more time than that."

Assistant county prosecutor Jeff Lingo said the case was nearly dismissed because his office - unaware of the family's phone number in Atlanta - could not reach family members or the victim. In fact, Mr. Lingo said Caldwell could have walked away without any charges at all.

"When we got ready to try the case, we tried contacting them, including letters," Mr. Lingo said. "Their phones had been changed and we had no new numbers for them. In every one of our letters, it states that you need to contact us and keep us apprised of your location and any changes in address and phone.

"We heard nothing from them. It came down to trial and we were not being able to contact anybody. We took a plea but only had to reduce it one step from a [Felony 3] to a [Felony 4]."

Vena Lampkin uses a motorized cart to shop with her
mother, Kim, and daughter, Rashyra. Prosecutors said they were unable to reach the Lampkins, who now live in Atlanta. Vena Lampkin uses a motorized cart to shop with her mother, Kim, and daughter, Rashyra. Prosecutors said they were unable to reach the Lampkins, who now live in Atlanta.
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If the charges had remained third-degree felonies, Caldwell could have been sentenced up to 10 years in prison and fined up to $30,000 on both counts.

Kim and Vena Lampkin both disputed that they had not been in contact with the prosecutor's office, both saying they called the office on various occasions to check on the case. They said they got no further than a secretary each time.

Kim Lampkin said they also received letters from the prosecutor's office about the case at their Atlanta home, but none made note that their presence was required.

She said they didn't learn about Caldwell's conviction until a family member in Toledo saw a story about it in The Blade and contacted them in Atlanta. The family did eventually send a victim impact statement to Judge Zmuda, but it was after a plea agreement already had been struck.

"Why didn't they just write us a letter and say 'call us because we don't have a phone number for you?' " Kim Lampkin said. "That was so simple. They're saying the reason why he didn't get any time was because no one showed up for court. I can't believe that."

Areti Tsavoussis, the executive director of the Toledo-Lucas County Victim Witness Assistance program, said she was not familiar enough with the case to comment.

Susan Howley, public policy director for the National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington, said while notification problems between victims and the prosecution are not uncommon, victims have the right to be notified of legal proceedings of the suspect in their case.

Caldwell Caldwell
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She said since the victims are often the main witnesses, contact and notifications are crucial. She said she could not speak directly about the Caldwell case, but she said Ohio doesn't have a formal system to investigate claims like the Lampkins are making.

"When a complaint like this arises, it really demonstrates the need for such a compliance process," Ms. Howley said. "It would be very helpful for a designated agency to have the authority to investigate this case, see what happened, and, if the victim's right to be notified of court proceedings was violated, how that can be prevented in the future."

Mr. Lingo said the case was hardly a slam dunk. The first problem was that Vena Lampkin, 21, was driving with a suspended driver's license. The vehicle Ms. Lampkin was driving was also uninsured. He said both violations would have likely been brought up in trial, challenging prosecutors to win a conviction.

"I'm sure that played a factor [in sentencing] because there is an argument that could be made that she shouldn't have been out there driving," Mr. Lingo said.

Mr. Lingo said another fact that made the case problematic is that when officers found Caldwell an hour after he left the wreck, he was not given a field sobriety test.

"He had an obvious leg injury so they couldn't give him a field sobriety test and all we would have had in trial was the officer's observations that he smelled like alcohol. As far as cases go, it wasn't a great case, but certainly a triable case. We were prepared to try it, but to be honest, our biggest problem was being able to locate the victim," Mr. Lingo said.

Vena Lampkin's passenger in the accident, Jeremiah Mims, was sentenced in March to four years in prison for possession of crack cocaine in an unrelated case, so he was unavailable to prosecutors, Mr. Lingo said.

"I've got two victims, one in prison . . . and the other one I can't find," Mr. Lingo said. "That makes it difficult to try a case."

Caldwell's attorney, Matthew Fech, said weather and fog played a factor in the crash and he considered the plea bargain fair. Mr. Fech said Caldwell recently gained custody of his daughter and the sentence enabled him to continue working to support his family.

"In my presence he has been very remorseful about this," Mr. Fech said. "But I think the weather and fog played a bigger factor in [the collision]. Mr. Caldwell is a good person."

Vena Lampkin was pinned inside her wrecked vehicle and had to be extricated by fire personnel. Today, she gets around with a walker and a cane. She hasn't been able to apply for jobs or attend school because she can only stand and walk for short periods of time. Six screws and a chain inserted by doctors help to keep her once-shattered right leg and hip together.

Her face is supported by an inserted metal plate, and dentures replaced her front teeth that were lost in the head-on collision caused by Caldwell. It has left her unable to care for her daughter, who is approaching 2.

Kim Lampkin's husband, Victor, 44, was injured 16 years ago in a traffic accident, and he uses a wheelchair. That leaves Mrs. Lampkin as the sole breadwinner for the family.

Mrs. Lampkin said the case was not the first time tragedy touched her family. In 1997, her father, Claude Rosemond, died after he was punched by Robert Kurth, Jr., while the two argued over a repair bill for a vehicle Mr. Rosemond took into Bob's Raceway Frame Shop & Auto Body.

Mr. Rosemond died nine days later in St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center. Visiting Judge Randall Basinger sentenced Kurth to two years for involuntary manslaughter but later suspended the sentence, and Kurth served a total of six months.

Kim Lampkin said her father's and daughter's cases are examples of how the justice system has been unfair to the family. Vena Lampkin said she'd like to find closure, but the Caldwell sentence failed to do that.

"I'm not a hateful person and I don't even know who [Caldwell] is," Vena Lampkin said. "I know it was an accident, but I wouldn't feel the way I do if he wouldn't have tried to run."

Contact Clyde Hughes at:

chughes@theblade.com

or 419-724-6095



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