Motorist pleads guilty to lesser offense; DNA not promptly available for trial
By William F. West
Friday, January 12, 2018
CURRITUCK – A Currituck County man will be sentenced to an active prison term next month following his guilty plea this week to charges connected to the hit-and-run death of a pedestrian on the Currituck Outer Banks more than three years ago.
Peter Thomas Luke, 41, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to misdemeanor death by vehicle and misdemeanor hit and run in the death of Asen Zahariev, 22, a court records shows. The plea also came after District Attorney Andrew Womble said DNA evidence in the case wasn’t promptly available for the trial.
Zahariev, a Bulgarian exchange student living on the Outer Banks for the summer, was struck and killed just off N.C. Highway 12 the night of Aug. 25, 2014 as he was walking home from his job at a supermarket.
Luke, whose trial on charges of felony hit and run and misdemeanor death by vehicle began Tuesday, entered his guilty pleas in an agreement with the District Attorney’s Office on Wednesday. Court officials said Luke’s trial ended about mid-day on Wednesday.
Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett, who presided at Luke’s trial, ordered him to return for a Feb. 5 session of court for sentencing. The delay will allow court officials to prepare a pre-sentencing report, a court document suggests.
Luke’s agreement with prosecutors states he’ll receive the active sentence for his guilty plea to the misdemeanor death by vehicle charge. He’ll receive a sentence of probation for his guilty plea to the misdemeanor hit-and-run charge.
Luke remains free on a $10,000 secured bond.
Womble said in an email Thursday that his office offered the plea deal to Luke after DNA evidence needed in the case wasn’t immediately available Wednesday.
“After having reviewed our evidence over a month ago, the evidence custodian with the state Highway Patrol separated the evidence due to its biological nature,” Womble said. “When the evidence was needed in court for the lab analyst’s testimony, the evidence custodian could not locate the DNA evidence.”
Womble said the evidence was later discovered, but only after his office chose to offer Luke the plea deal.
Womble said he was satisfied with the case’s ultimate outcome, even if he wasn’t satisfied with “how we got there.”
“I would have preferred the jurors selected for this case determine what was justice for the defendant and the victim,” he said. “That is the hallmark of our criminal justice system.”
Womble continued, “I do hope that the victim’s family, friends and co-workers can take some measure of solace and closure from this outcome and that Mr. Luke is being held accountable for his actions.”
John Parker, Luke’s defense attorney, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Luke had acknowledged driving on N.C. 12 and hitting something the night Zahariev was killed. However, he maintained his belief that he had struck a deer.
A report of the N.C. Highway Patrol’s investigation of the incident found damage to Luke’s car mirror and windshield consistent with glass found on N.C. 12 where Zahariev was struck.
Additionally, court records show Dr. Karen Kelly, of the regional medical examiner’s office in Greenville, was prepared to tell jurors that Zahariev died from traumatic injuries to his head consistent with being struck by a vehicle.
During the trial, a store official testified that Zahariev left the Corolla Harris Teeter the night of Aug. 25, 2014 following his work shift.
The official also testified that a co-worker found Zahariev lying on the side of the N.C. 12 the next morning. The official said she called 911 after finding Zahariev was unresponsive.
Also testifying at the trial was retired N.C. Highway Patrol Sgt. Tom White, who was with the patrol when Zahariev’s body was found. White, the first patrolman to arrive at the collision scene, testified he found vehicle debris near Zahariev’s body. He also said he found a tire impression in a grassy area off the pavement near where Zahariev’s body was found.
Under questioning by Parker, White testified he didn’t see any reflective clothing on Zahariev’s body. He also said he saw no evidence Zahariev had been carrying a flashlight or other illumination device, and he acknowledged there weren’t any street lights in the area where the grocery store worker was walking.
White disagreed with Parker’s suggestion, however, that he should have called in a patrol crash reconstruction team to further investigate the collision scene.
During the trial, Parker took aim at the credibility of two of the law enforcement officials involved in the investigation of his client. He pointed out to jurors that neither then-Currituck sheriff’s deputy Henry Dozier, who arrived to secure the scene, nor then-state Trooper B.K. Wayne, who eventually arrested Luke, were listed as state witnesses in the case.
Both Dozier and Wayne resigned from their jobs in 2016. Parker, in court papers prior to the trial, had raised questions about Wayne’s credibility as a witness.