Driver found guilty of lesser charges in hit-and-run death

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Jeff Barva-Hamlin offered to plead guilty to homicide by vehicle after he struck and killed a man on Liberty Avenue last year.

But Lisa Middleman, his public defender, said Wednesday that the plea was rejected by the Allegheny County district attorney’s office because prosecutors wanted her client to serve time in state prison.

“They thought they could prove intent,” she said.

So the case this week went to a jury trial, and after about five hours of deliberations Wednesday, Mr. Barva-Hamlin was found not guilty of first- and third-degree murder as well as voluntary manslaughter.

Instead, the jury found him guilty of the lesser counts of homicide by vehicle and involuntary manslaughter.

He will be sentenced by Common Pleas Judge Edward J. Borkowski. Ms. Middleman told the court that she thought the standard guideline range for the charges would be months of incarceration — not years.

The maximum Mr. Barva-Hamlin, 28, would face on the homicide by vehicle, which is a third-degree felony, is three-and-a-half to seven years.

“Sometimes, an accident is an accident,” Ms. Middleman told the jury during her closings Tuesday afternoon. “Sometimes, people don’t make the best choices, but are they criminal choices?”

The incident began around noon on March 30, 2013, when Mr. Barva-Hamlin, who was outside his girlfriend’s home on Fisk Street, got into an argument with Chad Vida, 40, of Etna.

According to testimony, Vida insulted the LAW motorcycle club, to which Mr. Barva-Hamlin belongs. He was wearing a jacket with the club’s colors that day.

A short time later, Mr. Barva-Hamlin, his girlfriend and her 5-year-old son got in a Kia Sportage SUV and left. They caught up with Vida a short time later, and Mr. Barva-Hamlin pulled over, exited the car and continued the earlier argument.

At some point, though, Mr. Barva-Hamlin, who had a firearm and has a license to carry a concealed weapon, testified that he decided to get back in the car to leave.

He told the jury that as he was pulling away, he believed Vida jumped in front of his car.

He struck him and continued driving. Mr. Barva-Hamlin, who testified that he thought Vida had a gun in his hand when he was coming toward the vehicle, returned to his girlfriend’s house and called 911.

Vida suffered severe head injuries and died.

Mr. Barva-Hamlin said he did not purposely strike Vida.

On cross-examination, assistant district attorney Jonathan Fodi repeatedly raised questions about the motorcycle club.

“Your stopping that day had nothing to do with defending your colors?” Mr. Fodi asked.

“It had nothing to do with that.”

Later, he explained that during the confrontation outside his vehicle, Vida was acting strangely.

“I was scared. He was a lot bigger than me. I never intended to kill him. I just wanted to get away from him as quickly as possible.”

Throughout the trial, Ms. Middleman raised questions about Vida’s mental health. Results from his toxicology tests at autopsy showed he had a number of substances in his system, including codeine, methadone and methanol.

A bystander to the incident who called 911 that day said in her call that Vida “jumped in front of” the SUV, and a social worker from UPMC Presbyterian said she found a note containing suicidal thoughts in Vida’s pocket when he was brought in.

Although the social worker made a note about the paper she found, police never recovered the actual writing.

Ms. Middleman admitted during her closings that her client could have behaved differently, but Vida was not acting reasonably.

“Why did he run in front of the car?” she asked. “It’s not a violation of the law to not be able to avoid an accident.”


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. First Published April 2, 2014 2:59 PM


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