Former township mayor must stand trial

Raritan Township Court has ruled Edward Hawley must face charges resulting from the death of a township woman almost three years ago.

By: Linda Seida
   The legal troubles aren’t over for Edward Hawley, the former six-time mayor of West Amwell who is facing charges in the accidental death of a township woman almost three years ago.
   A judge last week decided the municipal court where the former mayor is being tried is not bound by an earlier ruling in state administrative court that cleared him of all charges. Municipal Judge Louis. P. Mellinger said the case against Mr. Hawley will proceed in Raritan Township Municipal Court. No date has been set.
   Administrative Court Judge John Schuster III had ruled in November the former mayor would face no fines or penalties from the motor vehicle charges resulting from the death of Greta Schmidt in May 2001.
   Mr. Hawley, 71, was charged with careless driving and having an obstructed view following the death of Ms. Schmidt, 31, at the township’s trash transfer station, behind the municipal building on Rocktown-Lambertville Road. Ms. Schmidt was dropping off refuse when Mr. Hawley, who also was discarding trash, backed up his vehicle and struck her in May 2001.
   A county investigation concluded there was insufficient evidence to warrant more serious charges, and a grand jury declined to indict him.
   At the request of defense attorneys, the trial was transferred out of West Amwell last April to avoid any appearance of impropriety due to the fact Municipal Court Judge Richard Cushing’s law firm represents the defendant’s insurance company.
   By that time, almost two years had passed since the accident. Before then, the prosecutor and attorneys for the family had requested a change of venue, but Judge Cushing denied them.
   The long delay in hearing the case contributed to the administrative court ruling clearing Mr. Hawley of all charges. All parties agree the ruling was highly unusual. An administrative court becomes involved to decide the revocation of a license when an accident involves a fatality and normally does not rule on a case until the municipal courts have had their say.
   The delay also has led the family and their attorneys to allege the case was handled inappropriately in West Amwell in deference to the former mayor. They say Judge Cushing should not have kept the case in West Amwell for almost two years.
   Ms. Schmidt’s husband, John Marshall, has appealed to top state officials, requesting an investigation into the way the case was handled at the municipal and state levels. The issue has been referred to the state Division of Criminal Justice. Mr. Hawley, on the advice of his attorney, declined to comment.
   Mr. Hawley served as a West Amwell committeeman from 1975 to 1992. He held the post of mayor in 1977, 1980, 1983, 1986, 1989 and 1992.
   "It’s refreshing to see justice carried out," said Daniel Danzi, one of the attorneys representing Ms. Schmidt’s family. "It’s refreshing to see an individual sit objectively and not be influenced by somebody’s prior position in the community."
   Mr. Danzi said he was not surprised by Judge Mellinger’s ruling.
   "I expected it, looking at supporting case law and the jurisdiction of the courts," he said.
   The jurisdiction of the administrative court is "very limited," he said.
   "It’s obvious that both the prosecutor and the judge are well prepared to do this family justice and help restore their faith in the justice system," Mr. Danzi said.
   Robert Ballard is the prosecutor handling the case for Raritan Township.