A Lewes man was found guilty in Delaware Superior Court Sept. 11 for causing the death of Delmarva media magnate Thomas Draper in September 2017.
The jury of seven women and five men returned the verdict after nearly three hours of deliberations in the case of Shawn Armstrong, 38. Armstrong was charged with operating a vehicle causing death and inattentive driving in the crash that killed Draper on Slaughter Neck Road outside Slaughter Beach.
Evidence in the trial included playing a tape of the 911 call Armstrong made moments after the crash, when a panicked Armstrong told the operator, “I don’t know why he came into the road.” Families of both Draper and Armstrong listened as Draper could be heard breathing faintly as he tried to stand.
The two-day trial, presided over by Judge E. Scott Bradley, saw prosecutors Nichole Gannett and Kevin Gardner argue that Armstrong was not paying attention while operating his 2013 Ford F-150, striking Draper and causing injuries that led to his death. Armstrong, who took the stand in his own defense, argued that he was paying attention and that he maintained his course eastbound toward Slaughter Beach when Draper swerved in front of him before he could react, causing the crash.
Whether Armstrong was paying attention was the crux of the case. No one disputed that Armstrong’s truck struck Draper. The state’s main witness, Detective Kenneth Argo, testified Armstrong was not calling or texting and was not otherwise impaired. All parties agreed the weather was clear and that Draper was visible to Armstrong from a distance of about 600 feet. Both sides also agreed Armstrong did not flee the scene, but called 911 and stayed with Draper until emergency responders could come.
Where the two sides diverge is on where Draper was riding before the accident. By all accounts, in the area where the crash occurred, the shoulder pavement was cracked, with grass growing through it. Argo testified a gouge mark, made by Draper’s kickstand digging into the road, indicated Draper was a little less than 2 feet inside the roadway. Prosecution witness Curtis Esposito, a friend and frequent riding partner of Draper, said Draper was a steady rider, who typically liked to ride about 8 to 10 inches off the white line on that particular road, as the shoulder was practically impassable by bicycle.
Armstrong testified Draper was riding steadily in the shoulder area prior to the accident. He said there was no indication that Draper was struggling with the terrain. Esposito said Draper rode a Trek road bike used primarily for asphalt surfaces but capable of riding on gravel. Armstrong said he maintained his course instead of trying to go wide into the other lane. The road is marked with a broken line, so Armstrong could have passed into the westbound lane had he chosen to. Armstrong said he had seen Draper ride on that road before; he did not know who Draper was, but recognized him by his bright green riding vest. Armstrong had always maintained his course when passing him and said he usually stayed the course going around cyclists because he believed it was safer. However, on this occasion, Armstrong’s truck hit Draper from behind, Argo said.
During Armstrong’s testimony, defense attorney Michael Abram played the 911 call Armstrong made as soon as the accident occurred. The playing of the call was the most emotional part of the trial, as the Draper and Armstrong families could be seen with heads down. The jury and Armstrong himself kept a neutral pose, listening to the evidence.
In the call, Armstrong is clearly panicked, saying, “I can’t believe this.” Draper can be heard faintly breathing. Sgt. Lee Weller, the first officer on the scene, testified that Draper’s leg was broken and Draper could not speak; Armstrong was advised by the dispatcher to make sure Draper did not move. During the call, Armstrong frequently asks Draper to stay still because Draper was trying to stand up. Toward the end of the call, Armstrong says, “I don’t know why he came into the road.” In a subsequent interview with Argo, also played for the jury, Armstrong reiterated that Draper swerved in front of him, and that Armstrong, traveling at 50 to 55 mph, could not avoid him in time.
Argo and the prosecutors both stated Armstrong became distracted and hit Draper from behind, throwing him into the bushes. During his closing argument, Abram questioned that theory and presented his own: that Draper swerved out into the road to avoid the bad pavement on the shoulder.
The verdict was a bittersweet moment for the Drapers, who were relieved the jury found Tom Draper did not ride erratically in causing his death. Draper’s son, Hank, flanked by Draper’s sister, Diane Draper-McGuire, said he harbored no ill will toward Armstrong.
“The verdict came out in our favor. We’re happy about that. We’re not really happy about any aspect of this. It is what it is. It’s unfortunate. It was an accident. It’s a weird place to be. I’m sure Shawn is a good guy that just had a bad day, and unfortunately, the end result is my father was killed. We’re sort of between a rock and hard place,” Hank Draper said.
Armstrong will be sentenced Friday, Oct. 26, in Delaware Superior Court in Georgetown. He faces up to 30 months in prison and/or a $1,150 fine.
State bicycle laws change after Draper accident
One of the issues in Shawn Armstrong’s trial was whether he should have moved to his left to overtake Thomas Draper’s bicycle instead of holding his course.
About a month after Draper’s death, in October 2017, Gov. John Carney signed the Bicycle Friendly Delaware Act, which mandates that motorists sharing a travel lane with a bicyclist must move completely into the opposite lane or, at least provide a 3 foot buffer in order to pass the bicyclist.
The law was not in effect at the time of Draper’s death in September 2017, but was in the works throughout that summer, passing the House of Representatives by a 41-0 vote and the Senate by 20-1 vote.