Druce Trial Set For Tomorrow In Fatal Hit-and-run Crash

Posted: September 10, 2000

HARRISBURG — A Christmas card changed everything.

The case of Kenneth Reed Cains was growing cold in the Harrisburg police files last December: Cains, a pedestrian, had been struck and killed early one July morning by a black Jeep Cherokee whose driver left the scene.

It was a serious crime, to be sure, but the investigation quickly petered out for lack of evidence. Then the anonymous holiday card reached Dauphin County Crimestoppers.

"I have heard that State Representative Tom Druce was out drinking" that night, the card said. "The representative traded in his state-leased vehicle the next day. It was a black Jeep."

The source of the tip has never been publicly disclosed, but the results of it will play out in court beginning tomorrow.

Bucks County Rep. Thomas W. Druce, 38, father of three young children and a rising star in the Republican Party, is scheduled to stand trial in Dauphin County Court, accused of hitting and killing Cains, 42, on a dark thoroughfare near the state Capitol on July 27, 1999.

Druce has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which include vehicular homicide and the more serious felony charge of leaving the scene of a fatal accident, which carries a minimum one-year prison term.

In his most detailed public explanation, Druce in January acknowledged that he must have been the person who hit Cains that night, but said he thought he had struck a road sign. He said he was not drunk, and that he turned in his Jeep five days later because he was due for a new one anyway. His attorneys have said his conduct was not criminal.

But that stance may change tomorrow. Attorneys in the case are under a judge's gag order, but House Republican sources said last week that Druce was prepared to enter a plea bargain with Dauphin County prosecutors - an arrangement that would require at least a year behind bars.

He would plead guilty to leaving the scene of a fatal accident, the sources said, and in exchange, seven other charges - including vehicular homicide - a misdemeanor, would be dropped.

The sources said Druce was seeking to serve his sentence in county jail under a work-release program. But relatives of Cains, a Marine Corps veteran, want Druce in state prison.

"No plea bargain of guilty that offers anything but prison time without work release or early parole will be accepted," Paula Harris, president of the Harrisburg chapter of the NAACP, said last week in a television interview.

Race has haunted the case. Minority activists have complained that Druce, who is white, received special treatment that would not have been afforded to his victim, a black man.

"Justice must not be compromised," Harris said, saying she was speaking for the Cains family.

Harris accompanied Louis Cains, the victim's brother, and other family members to a three-hour meeting Tuesday with Dauphin County prosecutors. District Attorney Edward M. Marsico said before the judge's gag order was imposed that he would not agree to any plea bargain deemed unacceptable by the victim's family.

Druce, who is not running for reelection, would have to resign his House seat under the deal, the sources said. Efforts also are being made to settle possible wrongful-death claims from Cains' relatives against the Pennsylvania House, which reimbursed Druce for his Jeep, the sources said.

If convicted on all eight charges, Druce could be imprisoned for up to 21 years.

If Druce pleads guilty and resigns, the Republicans would lose their one-seat majority in the House, which could lead to political chaos in the lame-duck session after the Nov. 7 election, when the General Assembly finishes legislation before new members take office.

"There could be some high mischief as a result of this," said Joseph Carduff, a GOP political consultant.

If the trial proceeds, prosecutors have filed a witness list naming several state employees, including state House aide Shannon Gleason, a friend of Druce's, and her husband, Peter Gleason, an aide to Gov. Ridge.

Shannon Gleason has said she was with Druce at a bar near the Capitol on the night of the accident.

Druce is the first lawmaker in the 316-year history of the Pennsylvania legislature to be charged with homicide. Earlier this year, his attorneys made an unsuccessful bid to move the trial out of Harrisburg. They presented a poll showing that 85 percent of local residents had heard of the case and 61 percent thought Druce was guilty of at least some of the charges against him.

Even in a capital where charges of misconduct by legislators have become frequent, the Druce case has been viewed as a stunning tragedy.

"I have known Tom Druce to be a man of honor, integrity, kindness and compassion," Gov. Ridge said when Druce was charged in January. "Like others who know him, I have been shocked by this news, and I have hoped that it is untrue. Now, our justice system will decide."

Ken Dilanian's e-mail address is kdilanian@phillynews.com

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