LITITZ, Pa. — The Lancaster County woman who caused a multi-vehicle chain reaction crash that killed two Warwick High School students and seriously injured a third in 2018 will serve 10 years of probation after pleading no-contest to two counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of reckless endangerment Tuesday in Lancaster County Court.
Debra Slaymaker-Walker will also be banned from driving during her supervision period, is barred from all contact with the victims and their families, and is ordered to pay $31,748 in restitution, according to the Lancaster County District Attorney's Office.
The plea arrangement was approved by Lancaster County Judge Donald Totaro, who issued sentence.
Totaro called the plea an "appropriate disposition" in consideration of the medical expert reports documenting Slaymaker-Walker's medical condition, which was a factor in the crash.
“The prosecutor takes an oath to uphold the law and makes decisions that are sometimes not popular,” Totaro said, according to a press release issued by the DA's office. “Based on my review, I cannot find fault in the decision made by the district attorney.”
In the Oct. 26, 2018 crash, which occurred just outside Warwick High School, students Meghan Keeney, 17, and Jack Nicholson, 16, were killed. A third student, a 17-year-old male, sustained serious injuries.
Slaymaker-Walker, 64, was charged in December 2018 with two counts of third-degree murder and related charges.
But, the district attorney's office said, during the court process, prosecutors got additional information relating to Slaymaker-Walker's medical condition, which caused them to reevaluate the charges and investigate further.
Over the last year, the DA's office said, several doctors and specialists provided reports stating Slaymaker-Walker appeared to have a seizure event or events around the time of the crash. The doctors believe her actions were caused by an epileptic seizure -- which she could not have anticipated -- and that she was not capable of conscious judgement while she was suffering from it.
"Therefore, her degree of criminal responsibility is greatly affected," the DA's office said. "Our office weighed that medical information with the actions before, during and after the crash, as well as evidence gathered in the initial investigation, to develop an appropriate prosecutorial course.
"Third-degree murder involves the presence of malice. Considering the doctors’ opinions (rendered to a reasonable degree of medical certainty), reports and supporting medical information, we feel we cannot establish at trial that Slaymaker-Walker acted with malice at the time of the crash. We also would face a significant hurdle in securing a conviction on the remaining charges.
"The resolution that was reached ultimately considers Slaymaker-Walker’s actions and medical condition, provides financial restitution to the victims, and prioritizes public safety by prohibiting her from driving."
The DA's office said it had multiple discussions with the victims' families about the resolution, outlining all the elements of the case, including the medical specifics, and the reasons for the decision to offer Slaymaker-Walker a plea deal.
"We understand this plea resolution does not provide the full closure they are seeking," the DA's office said. "We offered full transparency while explaining our course of action, and that we carefully weighed the strength of our case after the reports had been submitted. We stand by this decision in consideration of all evidence and the necessity to ensure community safety.
"No prosecution course, or sentence, will provide full closure or restore the tremendous loss resulting from this crash. This tragic incident impacted not only the victims, their relatives and friends, but also the entire community. That community includes the Warwick School District and the police departments that investigated the crash incident."
According to prosecutors, on Oct. 26, 2018:
- Slaymaker-Walker worked a morning shift at an area McDonald’s on the day of the crash.
- About 3:12 p.m., Northern Lancaster County Regional police responded to reports of a reckless driver on Temperance Hill Road (Route 772) in Penn Township. Police received reports that the driver of a Kia SUV (determined to be Slaymaker-Walker) was unresponsive in her vehicle when a bystander knocked on her window.
- At 3:18 p.m., Slaymaker-Walker’s Kia struck the rear of a school bus on Green Acre Road in Warwick Township. The Kia continued to travel eastbound on Route 772 toward Lititz Borough. A Lititz police sergeant, responding in his cruiser to the Green Acre Road crash, was nearly struck by the speeding Kia.
- In the borough, Route 772 turns into West Orange Street, where the crash happened. There, Slaymaker-Walker approached a line of eastbound vehicles slowed and stopped at an intersection by the school.
- Slaymaker-Walker drove to the right of those vehicles, in a margin area of the roadway. The Kia struck three vehicles in a side-swipe fashion during that pass maneuver.
- The Kia then veered left into the rear of a Chevy Sonic, which pushed the Sonic into oncoming traffic where it was struck by a Nissan SUV.
- The Sonic contained three students – Nicholson and Keeney were passengers, and the teenage male (who was seriously hurt) was the driver.
- Slaymaker-Walker’s Kia ultimately flipped onto its roof.
Prosecutors say they were provided information on epilepsy and seizures – "specifically, and pertinent to this case, what a seizure event is, how long it lasts, and what happens to the patient before, during and afterward."
Based on the information provided, generally, most seizures often last only a minute or two, according to prosecutors.
However, prosecutors say, there is a state of confusion and fatigue that can follow, called a “postictal state,” when the patient is not fully conscious nor acting voluntarily. The patients are also not necessarily aware they are having a seizure, nor are they necessarily aware after the episode that one took place, according to prosecutors.
The doctors who offered expert opinions on this incident reported that Slaymaker-Walker was having seizures in the week before Oct. 26, 2018, and likely on that morning as well – and that she was having a seizure, or a series of seizures, while driving before the time of the crash, prosecutors say.
Additionally, the doctors told prosecutors, there is nothing to indicate Slaymaker-Walker was aware of the seizures occurring, during or after the fact.
Slaymaker-Walker was under no driving restriction from PennDOT, according to prosecutors.
"This resolution, and any other possible resolution to this case, cannot ever compensate for the tragic loss of precious life for these families and the community," the DA's office said. "However, we must place emotions to the side and weigh all possibilities in arriving at a disposition that will offer essential protection to the community.
"Ultimately, the expert reports in this matter presented a significant challenge to succeeding at trial, and this resolution was reached with consideration of public safety being paramount."