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Hit-and-run a misdemeanor? Victim's father is fighting law

Published: Friday, May 2 2008 12:16 a.m. MDT

Jack Blount, whose daughter Connie was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Kentucky, aims to get laws changed there — and in Utah — to make the crime a felony.

Jason Olson, Deseret News

Jack Blount should be at Churchill Downs this weekend.

He should be enjoying his first Kentucky Derby with his wife and their 18-year-old daughter, Connie, a freshman at the University of Kentucky, a member of the equestrian team and an all-around horse lover.

But on April 13, Connie Blount was hit and killed by a pickup truck while crossing an otherwise empty four-lane road near the Lexington campus early in the morning. The driver of the pickup slowed down after hitting Connie, her father said, and then took off.

Shannon D. Houser, 36, was arrested April 24. But as of Thursday, the most serious charge against him was evidence tampering, a felony.

Prior to the accident that claimed Connie Blount's life, there were just three states in the nation in which hit-and-run was a misdemeanor crime.

Kentucky was one of them.

Jack Blount said he was shocked and frustrated that Houser could not be charged with manslaughter or anything that directly connected Houser to his daughter's death.

"Our spiritual side wants to be joyous because Connie is in heaven. But our earthly side is just painfully grieving the loss of a very special daughter," Jack Blount said Thursday.

To add to the family's frustration, they learned from Kentucky authorities that the other two states in the nation that didn't have felony hit-and-run laws were Montana and Utah. In Utah, leaving the scene of an accident is a class B misdemeanor. Leaving the scene of an accident in which there is serious injury or death is a class A misdemeanor.

"Forty-seven states have seen the light that a drunk driver running over somebody and leaving the scene of an accident should be a felony," he said. "Why should drunkards be encouraged to leave the scene instead of staying and calling for help just because they would be punished?"

Houser has not been charged with driving under the influence and cannot be charged with manslaughter unless authorities can prove alcohol was a factor, Jack Blount said. But based on Houser's criminal history, as well as other information he has been given by police but can't release publicly, Blount said he is sure impairment was involved.

"He doesn't slow down. He doesn't swerve. He doesn't stop to offer aid. There's just no way you can get me to believe a rational, sober person could ever do that, period," he said.

Investigators were still working Thursday to see if they could increase any of the charges, he said.

Houser's criminal history includes DUI and another fatal car accident in 1993 for which he served jail time. After the Blount accident, Houser tried fixing the bumper on his truck and asked his friends to help him, Jack Blount said. Instead, they turned him in.

"But because he didn't stop and call the police and was able to hide out for three days, they can't prove he was drunk when he was driving the car. I think that's a loophole in the law," Blount said.

The Kentucky Legislature had been debating for six years whether to reclassify hit-and-run as a felony crime. Although the latest bill already had been introduced prior to Connie Blount's death, it took just two more weeks for the new law to pass, Jack Blount said. He said he received a call at home from Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear the day the bill was signed.

"(The family) really thinks now it should be called Connie's Law," Blount said.

As he continues to monitor his daughter's case in Kentucky, he also is starting campaigns to make hit-and-run a felony in all 50 states, starting next with Utah.

"You cannot explain to me why a drunk should be able to hit somebody, drive away and sober up and then call his lawyer and the police instead of calling while he's there and yielding help. To do that should be a felony everywhere," he said. "I believe this needs to be a felony in all 50 states. And I believe this could be at least one positive thing to come out of our loss of Connie."

Utah has had its share of high-profile hit-and-run accidents in recent years:

• Chelsea Smith-Peaslee was killed in a hit-and-run accident on I-15 in Layton in December.

• Bap Akol Deng Bap, 36, was hit and killed while riding a bike on Feb. 9, 2007. The driver who fled the scene admitted after his arrest he had been drinking heavily that night.

• Riverton High School student Devin Butler was critically injured in a hit-and-run accident while riding his bike to school Jan. 6, 2007.

• Mason Lee Haywood was hit and killed while cleaning the snow off his wife's parked car in December 2006. A female driver who fled the scene later turned herself in to authorities.

• Demitry Ponder, 13, was critically injured and left in a ditch after being hit while riding his bike to school Dec. 8, 2006. The driver fled the scene after the accident.

Blount said he has put out feelers to the offices of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., Sen. Orrin Hatch, Rep. Chris Cannon and Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert to get more information about having legislation passed in Utah. He hopes the public will support him in his efforts.

"When our government officials understand that we stand behind morals and values and issues, they act to make laws around them," he said.


E-mail: preavy@desnews.com

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