NEW CUMBERLAND - A Chester man charged in the accidental death of his friend in September must receive grief counseling before he is sentenced, law enforcement officials said Tuesday.
Brent M. Higgins, 23, faces a charge of negligent homicide, a misdemeanor, in the Sept. 2, 2012, death of Preston Andrews, 23, of Chester. The two were part of a group of four friends out socializing on the night of Sept. 1, and Higgins was the designated driver, Hancock County Sheriff's Sgt. Chuck Stanley said.
Higgins was driving a 1999 Ford Ranger pickup truck on Middle Run Road in the early morning hours of Sept. 2 when he lost control, sideswiped a guardrail and crashed into a southside embankment, according to the sheriff's department.
Andrews, a former Marine, had been riding in the passenger seat without a seat belt. He was found crumpled inside the truck and died at the scene of head and neck injuries, according to a complaint filed in Hancock County Magistrate Court about a month after the accident.
Higgins told deputies at the time that he was going 40 to 45 mph - the speed limit is 30 mph - and had swerved to avoid a deer. Investigators believe Higgins was actually going about 55 mph - too fast for a hilly, winding road that was wet from rain at the time.
Although Higgins had been drinking, along with his three friends, investigators determined that speed and reckless driving, not alcohol, were the cause of the crash, Stanley said. Tests showed Higgins' blood alcohol content to be .028 percent, well below the legal limit of .08 percent, according to the complaint.
One of two passengers riding in the pickup bed that night told deputies they were "flying down the road and were sliding around the bed of the truck," the complaint said.
On Tuesday, Higgins appeared before Magistrate Michael W. Powell for a status hearing. Powell agreed to transfer the case to Hancock County Circuit Court but not before chastising the defendant.
"You've got to take responsibility for your actions," Powell said. "This is a serious situation. When anybody loses their life, it's a serious situation."
Powell said Higgins shouldn't expect to get a "slap on the wrist and walk away" just because his case is being transferred and he is being recommended for counseling. "I can't believe they tried it as a misdemeanor - I don't care if it was an accident," Powell said.
In West Virginia, negligent homicide applies to anyone who is responsible for the death of another as a result of driving with "reckless disregard for the safety of others." The charge carries a penalty of up to a year in jail, a fine of up to $1,000 and a driver's license revocation.
Higgins' lawyer, April Raines, asked for the transfer because, unlike Magistrate Court, Circuit Court can issue an order for a defendant to be evaluated and referred for treatment. Higgins likely will be evaluated by the Lee Day Report Center in Weirton and referred for grief counseling, she said.
"I believe this is in (his) best interest," said Assistant Hancock County Prosecutor Marcy Grishkevich. "This was a friend, so he needs to address some grief."
Stanley said the transfer also will give authorities time to discuss the case with Andrews' family. What's more, Circuit Court will be able to enforce supervised probation. Only unsupervised probation is available through Magistrate Court.
"As the officer on this case, I would not want it to be dismissed," Stanley said.
Higgins remains free on a $5,000 recognizance bond.