When a Mover and Shaker Hits and Runs
“Capitol Crimes,” Forensic Files
Last week’s post looked at the car accident that killed a former Marine and damaged the political career of the driver.
Pennyslvania lawmaker Thomas W. Druce plowed his SUV into Kenneth Cains on a Harrisburg street and then sped off into the night on July 27, 1999.
The original charges against Druce, then 38, included homicide by vehicle — a third-degree felony with a mandatory minimum of three years — in addition to lesser charges such as tampering with evidence and insurance fraud.
Struggling vet. But Druce got a plea deal that eliminated the vehicular homicide charge. Along with a tongue-lashing about how Druce “lacked character” and “betrayed the public trust,” Judge Joseph H. Kleinfelter handed him a two- to four-year sentence in 2000. He ended up serving just two years before winning parole.
Thus a well-to-do, influential white man paid a small price for fleeing the scene of an accident that killed a poor, down-on-his-luck black man.
Cains, 42, was a Vietnam veteran with a severe drinking problem. He lived in a rooming house in a dodgy section of Harrisburg and had no spouse or children.
Druce had a wife, Amy Schreiber Druce, to cry for him during court proceedings as well as three small sons at home. His family and friends paid $600,000 to bail him out of jail (while awaiting sentencing) in time for Christmas in 2000.
Defer, defer. Druce even had the top Pennsylvania government official in his corner. “This story is a tragedy,” then-Governor Tom Ridge said. “I have known Tom Druce to be a man of honor, integrity, kindness, and compassion. Like others who know him, I have been shocked by this news, and I have hoped that it is untrue.”
Once sentenced, Druce filed various motions that delayed his imprisonment for four years, during which time he went “on vacation at the Jersey Shore, visited New York and Washington, attended parties and sporting events, and traveled to Harrisburg, where he worked as a political consultant,” a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial noted.
For this week’s post, I’d like to concentrate on how race and class factored into the Druce affair.
With the scenario reversed, a car driven by a Kenneth Cains striking a Thomas Druce — his suit-and-tie clad body hitting the side-view mirror, then bouncing off the windshield and landing beside the road — you can bet Cains’ sentence would have dwarfed the two years Druce got.
According to research gathered by the ACLU for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2014, black male defendants receive longer sentences than whites arrested for the same offenses and with comparable criminal histories.
NAACP weighs in. The ACLU report noted a differential of 20 percent, but I can’t help but envision a much, much more severe punishment than what Druce received. And Cains would have been denounced as an “animal,” to be sure.
As a 2001 Morning Call editorial noted:
“If anything, Mr. Druce, who is white, has received preferential treatment from the moment his car hit his African-American victim, as Paula Hess, executive director of the Harrisburg branch of the NAACP, has asserted. Eight weeks behind bars [prior to sentencing], followed by electronic monitoring — is that the price Mr. Cains would have paid if he had been the driver in a fatal hit-and-run?”
Consider another relevant scenario: an affluent African American office holder committing a hit and run against a heavily intoxicated, socially insignificant poor white man. I tend to think the driver would use his financial wherewithal to wring every ounce of leniency possible, just as Druce did.
In the real crime, classism seemed to play a larger role than racism.
Kid gloves. In his Forensic Files appearance, Louis Cains Jr., the brother of victim Kenneth Cains, expressed frustration over the consequences for Druce — but he didn’t pinpoint race.
As a 2004 Pocono Record story reported:
“Louis Cains Jr. has criticized the courts for giving Druce what he viewed as special treatment during his drawn-out appeal, but said at a news conference Thursday that he was satisfied with the outcome. ‘I knew in my heart he was going to have to do that time,’ the 51-year-old manufacturing worker said.”
Indeed, Pennsylvania Rep. Thaddeus Kirland, chairman of the legislative black caucus, pointed to class rather than race in decrying Druce’s short sentence and subsequent parole.
“Poor folk end up in jail, sometimes for the rest of their life for such a crime,” Kirland said, as reported by Tom Infield in a 2006 Philadelphia Inquirer story.
Not a fan. Likewise, Rep. Bill DeWeese, Druce’s colleague in the Pennsylvania House, implicated economic status. “If the down-and-out U.S. Marine had run helter-skelter over an Oxford-cloth, striped-tie, preppy legislator, that poor old salt would have been in the slammer until the cows came home,” DeWeese was quoted as saying in the 2006 Philadelphia Inquirer article.
Incidentally, DeWeese himself ended up on the wrong side of the law a few years later. In 2012, he earned himself a two- to five-year sentence for misuse of state resources for campaign purposes.
And why did DeWeese get a longer sentence for finance-related misbehavior than Druce did for a fatal hit and run?
Perhaps ageism, or just plain age. Druce, the younger, fresher rising star may have been judged more worthy of redemption than DeWeese, who was past 60 and presumably had more years to accumulate enemies in the state capital.
Update: Read Part 3 of the Thomas Druce story.