Suspect in fatal crash charged with 3rd degree murder

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A Greene County man accused of causing a South Side crash that killed a 7-year-old girl faces the possibility of 20 to 40 years in prison after a district judge ordered Friday that he be tried for third-degree murder.

Travis Isiminger, 23, of Holbrook, had previously been charged with homicide by vehicle for the December death of Lexa Cleland, of South Park. Police said Lexa died after Mr. Isiminger, drunk, drove across the center line on East Carson Street and crashed into her family's car.

At a packed preliminary hearing Friday, Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Michael Berquist argued that Mr. Isiminger should also be charged with third-degree murder, a rare step prosecutors take if they believe the recklessness of a driver rises to the level of malice.

In Pennsylvania, a third-degree murder conviction can carry a mazximum sentence of 20 to 40 years in prison, compared to three years for homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence.

Pittsburgh police officers testified at the hearing that Mr. Isiminger was driving 66 mph when he crashed, though the speed limit in the area, a construction zone, was 25 mph. They also testified that he had consumed three liters of beer at Hofbrauhaus, a South Side bar, before getting behind the wheel.

Mr. Isiminger's blood alcohol level that night tested between 0.219 and 0.224, they said. A person is considered legally intoxicated with a reading of 0.08.

Mr. Berquist argued that several aspects of the case -- including an allegation that Mr. Isiminger ran from the scene -- showed enough recklessness to infer malice.

Mr. Isiminger's lawyer countered that a murder charge is unjustified in a case like this, and should be reserved for defendants accused of crimes like intentionally running down a pedestrian.

"It was serendipity that this woman and her poor family were on the roadway that night," Charles Lopresti said. "But certainly there is no malice here."

"We're not here to insult anyone to say that it's not gross negligence ..." he continued. "However, to raise it to the level of third-degree murder is to take it into a whole 'nother realm."

District Judge Richard Olasz ruled in favor of the prosecutor, holding Mr. Isiminger for trial on the murder charge, among numerous other charges.

Mr. Isiminger fought back tears throughout the hearing, his face and neck red.

Afterward, his lawyer said he was shocked when the district attorney's office notified him of the upgraded charge.

"It took me a little by surprise, to say the least," he said.

Mr. Isiminger is a "country boy," Mr. Lopresti said -- a young man who had never been in trouble before the crash.

"I can't even begin to tell you how understanding the Isimingers are, and how much sympathy they feel for this family," he said.

Numerous members of both families attended the hearing, including Lexa's sister, Kathleen -- a 1-year-old who survived the crash -- and her father, who sat quietly through the proceeding, hands trembling.




Correction/Clarification: (Published 15, 2011) A story Saturday about a man charged with third-degree murder for causing a fatal South Side crash incorrectly described Pennsylvania's sentencing guidelines for the crime. A person convicted of third-degree murder may serve a maximum sentence of 20 to 40 years in prison. There is no mandatory minimum sentence



Vivian Nereim: vnereim@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1413.


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