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Earlysville hit-and-run driver to participate in 'restorative justice' program, avoids jail time

Upon his sentencing Thursday in Albemarle County court, a hit-and-run driver who left his seriously injured victim in an Earlysville ditch gave an emotional speech on the dangers of distracted driving.

The cautionary oration, delivered by a trembling Jesse Morris, may be the first of many he’ll have to perform, as Morris’ jail-free plea deal demands more such speaking engagements.

"I can tell that this event has had a significant impact on you as you read your statement, that you are physically shaken," said presiding Judge Matthew J. Quatrara.

Quatrara then asked Morris for a copy of his two-page speech to share with other drivers.

"That would be great," interjected the victim, Doug Ford, who moments earlier gave an enthusiastic fist-bump to the man who nearly a year ago broke more than 10 of his bones.

Ford, an Earlysville resident, was exercising on roller skis along Buffalo River Road about an hour before sunset on Feb. 17 when he was struck from behind by a pickup truck driven by Morris. Morris fled the scene, but the then-33-year-old brick and stone mason and father of two was later identified after the victim’s neighbors and friends pooled their sleuthing efforts.

The crash hospitalized Ford for three days and nights with more than 10 fractures to his ribs, scapula and ankle, along with an elbow so badly damaged that it required surgery. Despite weeks of uncertainty regarding the perpetrator’s identity and months of physical rehabilitation, Ford agreed to let Morris work out a so-called restorative justice plea.

A recently formed organization called Central Virginia Community Justice can step in when a victim, such as Ford, permits it. The prosecutor must also agree to any plea agreement, and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon P. Neal made the motion Thursday to reduce the criminal charges.

The deal that Judge Quatrara accepted allowed Morris — originally charged with felony hit-and-run plus two other offenses — to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor count of leaving the scene of an accident. The penalty was set at 12 months with all jail time suspended, and this was greeted with acclaim by the victim, who is a lawyer with a nonprofit legal clinic focused on immigration, asylum and other human rights matters.

"I think this is great," Ford told the court. "Punishment is not a big part of my approach to the law."

The hearing took place in a recently reconfigured Albemarle General District Court. The defense and prosecution tables, formerly positioned perpendicular to the judge’s bench, were moved in the past few days to face the bench.

"It changed," Morris’ lawyer Scott Goodman told The Daily Progress, "after what happened in Las Vegas."

Goodman was referring to an incident in which a criminal defendant leaped over the bench in a Clark County, Nevada, courtroom and injured the judge earlier this month. Filmed footage of the leap went viral. The new Albemarle arrangement lets the two tables act as barriers to any copycats.

But attacking anyone seemed far from Morris’ mind Thursday.

"If I could hit the replay button, I would have stopped," said a tearful Morris. "I panicked and fled the scene. I was scared and thinking about losing custody of my kids and the trouble I was going to be in."

Although Albemarle court records show that Morris has two convictions for driving under the influence and one conviction for driving on a suspended license, Morris said he struck Ford on that straight stretch of roadway because he was checking maps to find a battery for his children’s all-terrain vehicle.

"I was looking at my phone, typing in GPS," he told the court.

Morris went on to cite several statistics, including one promulgated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that nine people die every day from distracted driving. In Virginia, he said, 17% of all crashes, about 20,000 annually, are traced to distraction.

"This can happen to anyone," Morris testified, "even normal people who let themselves get distracted on the phone."

Morris initially avoided justice until concerned friends of the victim reached out to neighbors to try to identify the blue and white pickup truck that struck Ford. After one neighbor came forward with a surveillance camera photo, Morris was identified; he was arrested April 4, nearly seven weeks after the crash.

Initially, Morris won permission for HEI, or home electronic incarceration, but then he lost it. A letter in his court file shows that after getting released on HEI on May 8, he was returned to jail three days later in violation of his release terms by testing positive for marijuana. On June 21, he was again released on HEI. But eight days later, he was back in jail, accused of using a "masking agent" to alter a drug test.

"He actually served seven months in jail," Goodman noted. "He put himself in jail by the bond violation."

After Thursday’s hearing, Morris and Ford shared an embrace and a conversation. Morris said he’s already started fielding speaking inquiries from church groups, substance abuse rehabilitation organizations and driver education classes. Those interested in hearing Morris speak can call Central Virginia Community Justice.

"We’ll be happy to put them in touch," the group’s co-Director Ashley Cinalli-Mathews, who attended the hearing Thursday, told The Daily Progress.

She said the group has concluded 19 resolutions to criminal cases in the program’s nearly two-year existence, including a high-profile 2022 hit-and-run in which a motorist struck a cyclist on East High Street in Charlottesville in a fit of road rage. Although the judge accepted the deal in that case, he still expressed concern about what he considered inadequate information about its terms.

"We always try to respect confidentiality requests," said Cinalli-Mathews, noting that a letter conveying details of the resolution for that particular case failed to reach that judge. "We just miscommunicated."

As for Ford, who last appeared in court with a foot in an orthopedic boot and an arm in a mechanical sling, he said he has healed.

"I’m basically back to normal," Ford told the Daily Progress, noting that he has recently returned to roller skiing on the roads around his home.

"I still wince when I hear a big truck behind me, but I’m not going to let some f–ker change my life," said Ford, before quickly adding, "But [Morris] is not a f–ker."


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