A press conference held Friday to discuss a recent vehicle crash that killed a 29-year-old pedestrian was fueled with emotion, punctuated by verbal outbursts and underscored with frustration.
Aiken resident Lukisha Thomas was struck by a vehicle on March 30 while walking on the sidewalk of the 800 block of York Street, and later died while in surgery at Georgia Regents Medical Center. The driver of the vehicle, Aiken attorney Thomas G. Woodruff Jr., has not been charged in the case.
However, police said during the press conference that “there will be charges,” the specifics of which are not yet known.
The event was organized by the Aiken branch of the NAACP and was prompted by a high number of calls to the Aiken office following the fatality.
Thomas was with her 2-year-old son and a man, Ray Charles Wooden Jr., at the time of the incident. Wooden was also transported by ambulance to Georgia Regents Medical Center.
Thomas’ son was taken to Aiken Regional Medical Centers, where he was examined and released. Wooden was last reported in stable condition.
Investigators need ‘whole picture’
No charges have been filed in the case — and that had many people in attendance at Friday’s conference upset. However, Charles Barranco, director of the Aiken Department of Public Safety, said during the press conference that “there will be charges.”
Barranco remained calm as he was peppered — and in some cases, pelted — with questions about the case. Some people even yelled, “Bring it on,” as Barranco approached the front of the room.
He said repeatedly during the conference that police could not discuss particulars of the March 30 incident.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there; however, this is an ongoing investigation and we don’t have all the answers yet,” he said. “We have continually worked this case since the incident. What I can talk about is the process that goes on with an investigation such as this. An accident where there’s a loss of life, such as this, typically takes a long time to process.”
When asked by one man if he could see any charges being filed, Barranco responded: “There will be charges made. However, the specific charges are still premature (as to) what those could be.”
Barranco said it’s important to have the “whole picture” before filing charges in a case because the investigation could change the severity of the charges.
“If we make that charge and they go pay the bond, and something developed in the process of the investigation that may be more severe, we cannot charge them because what happens is double jeopardy attaches,” he said. “I can’t up the charge if they’ve done that.”
Charges to be determined
The topic of whether or not Woodruff submitted to tests to determine if he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol came up multiple times. “You must be under arrest for driving under the influence to be submitted to the breathalyzer,” Barranco said. “You have to be under arrest for that to happen, and to be under arrest, you have to have probable cause to be under the influence. The officers on the scene are trained to recognize driving under the influence.”
James Gallman, a member of the NAACP National Board of Directors, gave Barranco a scenario: “A car runs off the road. Someone gets killed. Even if he’d hit another car or a tree, it seems logical the thing you’d want to see: ‘What kind of impairments did this driver have?’”
Gallman expressed frustration toward the lack of specificity of what charges could be filed.
“We know he left the road. We know he hit those pedestrians,” he said. “We don’t have any doubt about that, and so you’re saying we don’t know what to charge him with? You know to charge him with that, and then anything else could be upgraded.”
Barranco said each charge has certain elements that have to be met. “The facts determine that,” he said.
Emotions, tempers run high
One woman, who said she was a cousin of Thomas, shouted at Gallman before walking out of the press conference. Soon after, another woman, claiming to be a sister of Wooden, spoke up before walking out.
“I have something to say because my family is involved,” she said. “My brother is the one in that hospital, and I would like to say to you all — black, white, Puerto Rican, Mexican or whatever race — this is not about race. I would like for you all to calm down for the Thomases, for Mr. Woodruff’s family also, because they are going through something also.”
Aiken resident Christopher Garris also spoke up.
“A lot of people are looking for this gentleman to be charged with murder. To charge someone with murder, there has to be intent,” he told reporters after the conference. “I don’t believe that there will be no charges, but I do believe that there is an investigative process that has to take place before anybody can officially be charged in a situation like this.”
During the conference, some expressed frustration that Woodruff wasn’t charged with reckless driving on the scene.
“If they would have charged him with reckless driving at that particular point, and they found out he was under the influence, then that’s reckless driving — they can’t come back and put a DUI on top of that,” Garris said. “A lot of people that are charged with DUI, the charges are pleaded down to reckless driving, which is a lesser crime.”
Philip Howell, president of the Aiken branch of the NAACP, said afterward that the meeting was a success.
“It’s a highly emotionally charged subject. We didn’t expect it to get as loud as it did,” he said. “We sort of knew what the chief was gonna say, and he wasn’t gonna be able to talk about anything of substance because it’s an ongoing investigation. People maybe didn’t get the answers they wanted, but they appreciated what we’re doing.”
Howell said he doesn’t want the case to be an issue of race, but said that aspect remains.
“One of the first things that came out was, if it had been Lukisha driving her car and hit the white lawyer, she’d be in jail,” he said. “We’d rather it not be an issue of race, but in my personal opinion, the reason the room was full of black people and only one white person, there’s probably a racial aspect.”
Barranco said afterward that he didn’t view the conference as “an attack.”
“It’s a community that cares, and they want to know what’s going on. They’ve heard all these different rumors,” he told reporters. “This process has been by protocol and policy, and will continue to be.”