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Not guilty of homicide

  • Mary Edith Rhoades, wife of the late state Sen. James Rhoades of Mahanoy City, talks to news media following the verdict in the case. The 2008 accident, which claimed the life of her husband.
    Mary Edith Rhoades, wife of the late state Sen. James Rhoades of Mahanoy City, talks to news media following the verdict in the case. The 2008 accident, which claimed the life of her husband.
Published March 16. 2010 05:00PM

Thomas Senavitis, 46, of Towamensing Township, was cleared of the most serious charges Monday following a trial that began last Wednesday stemming from an accident that claimed the life of state Sen. James Rhoades.

A Monroe county jury found Senavitis not guilty of homicide by vehicle, homicide by vehicle while DUI, and aggravated assault by vehicle.

The jury found him guilty of DUI incapable of safe driving, DUI greater than .03 percent, and recklessly endangering another person.

President Judge Ronald E. Vican deferred sentencing. The judge said the sentencing will occur within 90 days.

A request by the public defender for Senavitis to have his bail reduced was rejected by Judge Vican. The defendant is currently lodged in Monroe County Prison.

The charges stem from a head-on crash which occurred between vehicles driven by Senavitis and Sen. Rhoades at about 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 17, 2008 on Route 209 in Gilbert. The senator died 14 hours later in Lehigh Valley Hospital, Cedar Crest. His wife, Mary Edith, and Senavitis were both critically injured.

Senavitis' blood alcohol content, according to a police report, was .0355 percent.

Although Senavitis had no comment about the verdict, his wife, Dolores, said they plan to appeal it. She admitted, though, she was happy the homicide charges were dropped.

"When you get accused of killing and murder, it's a pretty harsh thing," she said.

The jury took about five hours and 20 minutes to reach a verdict. Twice they returned to the courtroom with questions for Judge Vican.

Nearly three hours into deliberations, the jury returned to ask for clarification on homicide by vehicle and homicide by vehicle while DUI.

Two hours later, they asked the judge, "If the direct cause (of the accident) is due to both parties, can one party be guilty of vehicular homicide?"

Judge Vican said, "A substantial factor, is 'what is the direct cause?'" He added, "There can be more than one direct cause of death."

He said the defendant is not the direct cause of death if the other party played a direct role.

At 5:20 p.m., the jury announced it had reached the verdict.

Mary Rhoades commented after the trial, "On behalf of my family, we respect the jury's decision.

"We're a strong family and a close family," she said, adding, "No matter what the outcome, my husband, their dad, their pop pop won't come back."

A major stumbling block for the jury was the conflicting testimony by two accident reconstruction experts.

Cpl. Doug Shook of the Fern Ridge Barracks of the Pennsylvania State Police had testified that his reconstruction showed the accident occurred in the lane of Route 209 occupied by the Rhoades' vehicle.

This was disputed by Kevin Theriault of Chesterfield, Va., a self-employed accident reconstruction expert hired by Mrs. Senavitis. He said the accident occurred in the southbound lane of traffic. Sen. Rhoades was northbound when the accident occurred, and Senavitis was southbound.

The senator was en route to Pleasant Valley High School, where he was scheduled to be honored during the halftime program of a football game when the accident happened.

Senavitis chose not to testify on his own behalf during the trial.

Representing Senavitis was attorney Wieslaw T. Niemoczyski of the public defender's office.

Attorney Niemoczyski said the maximum penalty that Senavitis could receive is two years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Senavitis already has been incarcerated in excess of nine months, said the attorney.

The prosecutor was Assistant District Attorney Colleen Mancuso. She said of the verdict, "I'm disappointed in it. I think the jury read the evidence incorrectly."

"It's obvious he was drunk," she said of the DUI conviction.

She said she didn't feel Theriault was "very credible," adding that he disregarded some of the evidence in coming to his conclusion.

"I'm disappointed for the Rhoades family," she remarked.

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