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The Daily Tar Heel

Language failure

The wording of the state's hit-and-run law must be changed so that offenders like Rabah Samara are held accountable for their actions.

Rabah Samara might feel sorry for the death of Tar Heel Sports Network reporter Stephen Gates - but Samara's regret doesn't make up for the fact that justice ultimately was not served.

Samara was found not guilty of hit-and-run charges in relation to the car accident that killed Gates. The jury found that the wording of N.C. law didn't qualify the incident as a hit-and-run.

The state rule must be changed so that someone is held accountable should a similar case come to court in the future.

The situation was complicated because after Gates was hit, Samara took over the wheel for Emily Caveness, an N.C. State University senior who was driving at the time of the accident.

Neither Caveness nor Samara was charged with the actual death of Gates because North Carolina law states that "the driver of any vehicle who knows or reasonably should know - that the vehicle which he is operating is involved in an accident or collision; and that the accident or collision has resulted in injury or death to any person - shall immediately stop his vehicle at the scene of the accident or collision. ... He shall remain at the scene of the accident until a law-enforcement officer completes his investigation of the accident or collision or authorizes him to leave."

Caveness initially was charged with felonious hit-and-run and misdemeanor hit-and run, but she pled to a lesser charge in exchange for testifying against Samara. Duncan McMillan, one of Samara's attorneys, told the jury that Samara could not be more responsible than Caveness. She is now charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor for failing to report an accident.

Fox told The (Raleigh) News & Observer after the verdict that Caveness did not do anything wrong when she hit Gates. It was an accident, and she eventually stopped the vehicle, so he couldn't proceed with hit-and-run charges.

The defenses for both Caveness and Samara argued that they did not know they had hit a person, and the prosecution was unable to prove otherwise.

Samara testified that he was unaware that a person had been hit because he had been asleep when the accident occurred.

According to the N&O, one witness testified that he told Samara they had hit someone. In his testimony, Samara claimed that he thought the witness was asking whether he and Caveness had hit anyone.

That's simply an untenable position for the state to accept in future hit-and-run cases. Does this verdict mean that people who leave the scene of an accident will be found not guilty if the driver and passenger merely switch seats? How can jurors be convinced that any passenger who switches seats with the driver is cognizant of the situation?

Thankfully, active steps are being taken to ensure that a verdict like this one won't be handed down again.

Gates' family members have contacted newly elected N.C. Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, who told WRAL that she felt the result was a "terrible miscarriage of justice."

Orange County District Attorney Carl Fox told WRAL that he wants the loophole closed. He plans to draft a proposal for state lawmakers that would include passengers in the language of the law.

The General Assembly would do well to examine closely any proposal that comes forward to change the language of the law.

A man was killed on the road, and the drivers of the car that hit him left the scene - the full force of the law should be brought against those who would flee from their civil responsibility.

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