Warrington man killed elderly pedestrian while searching for cell

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A Warrington man’s few seconds of distracted driving on a Lehigh County road took the life of an elderly woman and now could cost him up to seven years in prison.

Christopher J. Murphy Jr., 34, pleaded guilty Monday to homicide by vehicle for hitting and killing 85-year-old Helen Kemmerer as she crossed a road in Upper Milford Township to dump her trash on a sunny, clear morning last May.

Fighting back tears, Murphy, who was handcuffed and wearing a blue prison jumpsuit in court, told Lehigh County Judge James T. Anthony he was driving south on Kings Highway around 11:25 a.m. on May 23 when his cellphone slid off his lap and onto the floor of his car.

Murphy said he waited for the road to straighten out before bending down to grab the phone.

Murphy sat back up and saw Kemmerer in the roadway, and it was too late. 

“This is something that can happen to anyone,” Murphy’s attorney, John Baurkot, said.

Murphy, a college graduate who has credits toward a master’s degree, is scheduled to be sentenced in May. The felony charge carries up to seven years in prison.

“I can tell this is troubling you,” the judge told Murphy. “You didn’t set out that day to do this.”

In return for Murphy’s plea, charges of accidents involving death, involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, driving without a license, speeding, reckless driving and careless driving were dropped. None of those charges was more serious than the one Murphy pleaded guilty to.

Chief Deputy District Attorney V. Paul Bernardino III said the investigation showed Murphy was traveling about 38 mph in a 35-mph zone. Kemmerer, carrying a cane and a white trash bag, was walking across the street to where her trash hauler would perform a pickup. 

Bernardino said Kemmerer was wearing bright colors and would have been seen by Murphy if he hadn't been searching for his phone.

Bernardino said experts estimate Murphy had his eyes off the road for eight to 10 seconds. They can tell Murphy wasn’t texting and hadn’t used his phone for 10 minutes prior to the crash.

Murphy stopped his vehicle about 100 yards down the road after the crash and was at the scene when police arrived, authorities have said.

Murphy was arrested for the crime almost seven months later, in December. In the meantime, he was charged in October with drunken driving as a second offense for a separate case in Bucks County. Authorities say intoxicated driving was not a factor in the May crash in Lehigh County.

Baurkot said Murphy’s sadness over the Lehigh case was one of the factors that led to the subsequent DUI. Murphy told Anthony he’s been treated for depression and anxiety for a few years.

Murphy has a hearing in Bucks County on the DUI charge later this month.