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Man sentenced to 10 years in fatal DUI

Posted: March 30, 2012 4:02 p.m.
Updated: April 2, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Donnie Thigpen will spend the next 10 years behind bars for leaving a friend to die in an accident he caused by driving drunk.

A seven-woman, five-man jury found Thigpen guilty March 23 of felony DUI resulting in death and leaving the scene of an accident with death. The accident took place during the early morning hours of June 20, 2009.

At the time, S.C. Highway Patrol (SCHP) troopers reported that Thigpen drove north on 25 Mile Creek Road when he lost control of his Jeep Grand Cherokee, ran off the road, struck a tree and rolled over. The SCHP said Thigpen was not injured, but that Melvin Wright Jr., 27, died at the scene. 25 Mile Creek Road runs along the Kershaw and Richland county line between Kelly Mill Road and Tookie Doo Avenue.

During his closing arguments, 5th Circuit Assistant Solicitor Ron Moak said Thigpen was clearly under the influence that morning three years ago, with a blood alcohol level of .218, more than two and a half times the legal limit.

Moak said Thigpen offered different stories of what happened that morning, claiming to remember events before and after the accident, but not during the accident itself. Thigpen claimed his night started at 11:30 p.m. the day before when he got off from work, met up with Wright, frequented at least one, if not two bars and drank yet again with friends.

Moak pointed out Thigpen remembered having to break into his own home because he didn’t have his keys; fought with his dog, leaving him with injuries; and took a shower and went to sleep.

Thigpen’s recollections of what happened during the wreck kept changing, Moak argued. A friend drove him home. No, a stranger drove him home. Someone took the Jeep for a joyride. He drank too much and must have blacked out.

“‘I wasn’t in my right mind, I was half drunk,’” Moak recalled Thigpen’s statements to SCHP troopers. “He said it was a mistake, that it ‘shouldn’t have been Melvin.’”

Finally, Thigpen admitted he was driving. That he swerved and went into the ditch, panicked and ran from the scene.

“He said, ‘I take full responsibility,’” Moak said as he concluded the first of his two closing arguments. “But yesterday he took the stand and said it was ridiculous to believe anything he told the troopers.”

Defense attorney Alex Postic argued there might have been someone else at the wheel. His primary argument centered around two points: that there was “unidentified human DNA” on the airbag that deployed during the accident, and his claim that the SCHP botched the investigation.

Postic recalled testimony from an official testifying on the DNA sample: “I asked if the DNA was closer to an unidentified human than to Donnie Thigpen and they said yes.”

Postic ridiculed the SCHP’s seeming inability to definitively identify the DNA, especially in light of an animated re-creation of the accident.

“They can make a ‘Pixar’ movie of that wreck, but they can’t match the DNA of that person?” Postic asked. “Does that appeal to you? It doesn’t make a lick of sense.”

Postic also claimed the SCHP didn’t try very hard on alternative theories or suspects because they “had their man.” He said troopers found a shoe in the car that didn’t belong to either Thigpen or Wright, but didn’t try to find the owner. He also said troopers didn’t try to find out if the driver’s seat was in a position Thigpen -- or someone else -- could have driven the Jeep, and that they didn’t test the blood on Thigpen’s clothes.

“Please test this, please,” he said as if imploring troopers. “There were 146 pieces of evidence -- they’re trying to overwhelm you all -- but they couldn’t conduct a test on unidentified human DNA? Give me a break.”

An abrasion Thigpen suffered from the steering wheel, Postic attributed to “road burn.”

“Does it make sense that it’s only on one arm” if Thigpen shielded himself during the accident, Postic argued.

Nicks, scratches and a cut above Thigpen’s eye, Postic attributed to a bar fight and the fight with his own dog.

“He admits it wasn’t his best night; there’s no doubt about it. It was a rough night for Donnie,” Postic said.

Troopers found Thigpen wearing muddy shoes.

“Big deal,” Postic said, pointing out that Thigpen lives in a swampy area nearby.

The “big one” when it comes to why Postic said the jury should let his client go free is that his confession was coerced. Postic claimed troopers badgered Thigpen during a six-hour interrogation, loudly refusing any of his statements until they got the confession they wanted.

“The reason why we’re here is because they wanted to impose fear by having big men in uniforms with guns in that room with him. Wouldn’t you be scared? All he wanted to do was get back to his bed and his dog who’s been taken by animal control,” Postic claimed. “He tells them over and over again, ‘I don’t know what happened.’ And they come back with, ‘No! No! You need to come clean!’ ‘I am.’ ‘No!’ You don’t think he was scared?”

Finally, Postic said, Thigpen gave troopers the “most generic” statement about what happened that morning.

Postic told the jury that despite his client’s confession, it would be more reasonable to believe someone else drove the Jeep, leaving Thigpen without his keys, forcing him to break into his own home with a credit card.

But the keys were found in the Jeep, Moak noted when he returned for his final argument. Moak also said testimony that may have corroborated Thigpen’s stories about being in a drunken fight came from witnesses the defense only located a week before the trial.

“He testified that they were heading to his house to ‘sleep it off,’ but if Donnie was such a good friend, why did he leave the scene and Melvin hanging from his seatbelt? When he says ‘I take responsibility,’ it almost sounds like he’s relieved, that he blames himself for Melvin’s death,” Moak said. “It also defies logic that he remembers everything from before and after the wreck but not during it.”

Those different statements, Moak said, were given by “Drunk Donnie” and “Sober Donnie” who share the same DNA -- DNA that was found elsewhere in the Jeep.

“His blood was on the airbag, there’s no better explanation than he’s in the driver’s seat,” Moak argued. “And listen to what he said: ‘Melvin didn’t deserve this’ and ‘I should have called 911.’ Listen to his voice. Is this a false confession? No, that’s guilt.”

In the end, the jury sided with Moak, finding Thigpen guilty. Judge G. Thomas Cooper Jr. sentenced Thigpen to 10 years on both the felony DUI resulting in death and leaving the scene of an accident with death charges, to be served concurrently, meaning at the same time.


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