A man convicted in a 2014 accident that took the life of a Laurel man was pardoned by outgoing Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin on Friday.
Justin Wibbles, 27, of Gray Hawk, Kentucky, was released from prison on Friday, Nov. 22 after Bevin gave him a full pardon - meaning the felony conviction is absolved and is no longer on Wibbels' record.
Wibbels was convicted of wanton murder by a Laurel County jury in 2015 stemming from a crash on June 16, 2014, in which he struck a Windstream vehicle head-on in the oncoming shoulder along KY 30. Wibbels was exceeding the speed limit, was passing numerous vehicles in the westbound lanes before crossing over into the eastbound emergency lane before hitting the Windstream utility van driven by Jerry Thompson of East Bernstadt. Thompson was trapped inside the vehicle and was pronounced dead at the scene.
Wibbels underwent a jury trial the following year and was convicted of wanton murder. He received a 20-year prison sentence, but appealed the conviction in 2016. Wibbels was then released from prison on bond until the decision was made, as is allowed under Kentucky statutes. But the Kentucky Supreme Court upheld the conviction, sending Wibbels back to jail in September 2017.
The decision came as a surprise to Thompson's family members as well as to 27th Circuit Commonwealth Attorney Jackie Steele, who prosecuted the case. Steele said he was disappointed with the pardon.
"I share the concerns of the family on this decision," Steele said. "The people of Knox and Laurel counties and the feelings of the Thompson family were overlooked in the Governor's decision."
Steele said he believed the conviction was correct - that the Commonwealth had proven during the trial that Wibbels acted "wantonly" by driving recklessly and causing the death of another person. He added that he disagreed with the verbiage used in the Governor's pardon which stated that the incident was "a tragic accident."
"This was not an accident," Steele said. "An accident is when you run a red light or a stop sign or slide on wet roads. This is an individual who was passing cars in the wrong lane, traveling at 80 mph in a 55 mph zone and going into the wrong emergency lane. That's what 'wanton' means. He left a family without their dad, their brother."
Steele added that the second part of the Governor's pardon stated that the incident was not a murder.
"When someone is driving like that, they know the grave risk of hurting someone else. I said throughout the trial that it wasn't murder - it was wanton murder. Justin didn't get up that morning and decide he was going to kill someone. But he knew the risks of driving like that - that someone could get hurt. He knew exactly what he was doing. He knew the repercussions of his actions."
"The Governor's pardon disrespects the grand jury who heard the evidence in the case and brought back an indictment, it disrespects the jurors who sat and listened to all the evidence, it disrespects the judge who sat during the trial and it disrespects the Kentucky Supreme Court, who upheld the conviction," Steele continued.
Steele said he had spoken with the Thompson family, who were understandably upset over the pardon. He said he had never had a case in which the person found guilty had been pardoned and that he was not notified by the Governor or even contacted regarding the potential of the pardon.
"The Thompson family is very hurt, upset and don't understand why this happened and I don't either," he said. "They've lost a family member. The pardon clears Justin of any wrongdoing and wipes away the felony conviction. He can vote, carry a firearm - even run for public office. He's home with his family this Thanksgiving. The Thompson family won't be celebrating with theirs."