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WV Supreme Court hears case stemming from college student’s death

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Will unpaid student loans owed by a student who was fatally shot in 2008 be reimbursed by the West Virginia Crime Compensation Fund?

This was a question presented April 9 to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in the case of Angela Smith v. West Virginia Crime Victims Compensation Fund and the Court of Claims of the state of West Virginia.

Smith's 25-year-old son Donte Newsome was Marshall University football player who was shot and killed outside a Huntington nightclub in 2008. Newsome died at Saint Mary's Medical Center shortly after the shooting.

Jerel Garner was sentenced in 2010 to 21-25 years for shooting Newsome. He was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, wanton endangerment and carrying a concealed weapon.

He was found not guilty of attempted murder in the shooting of Curtis Keys — another Marshall football player who was wounded that same night.

After her son's death, Smith filed a claim to the West Virginia Crime Victims Compensation Fund and the Court of Claims, where she was awarded $8.184.99 for medical expenses, funeral and burial costs.

Smith requested a hearing, which was held on Oct. 7, 2011. In that hearing, the parties focused on whether Smith would be reimbursed for unpaid student loans where she served as a co-signer or guarantor.

The section of state code under scrutiny is the term "lost scholarship," which is defined as a "scholarship, academic award, stipend or other monetary scholastic assistance which had been awarded or conferred upon a victim in conjunction with a post-secondary school educational program and which the victim is unable to receive or use, in whole or in part, due to the injuries received from criminally injurious conduct."

In her petition for writ of certiorari, Smith argued the court erred in its decision, saying unpaid student loans would fall under "other monetary scholastic assistance" and would therefore be compensable.

The court later held that it appeared state code would support Smith's argument that the lost scholarship section would include student loan payments.

"But a closer reading of the statute shows that the intent of the Legislature was to allow compensation for scholarships awarded based on merit or other award-specific factors," court documents state.

Her petition presented the question "Does the term ‘lost scholarship' as defined in (state code), which is defined as ‘other monetary scholastic assistance' include unpaid student loans owed by the claimant's decedent at the time of decedent's death as a victim of murder?"

In their response, attorneys for the Crime Victims Compensation Statute explained the court of claims is in charge of administering the Crime Victims Compensation Act.

This fund will reimburse "innocent victims" of crime if they meet requirements of the Crime Compensation Act.

Attorneys for the state's Crime Victims Compensation Fund argue that although state code includes some property rights, a student receiving a scholarship, academic award or stipend "is not generally obligated to repay such an award."

"Based upon the fact that scholarships, academic awards and stipends are awards that a student is not generally obligated to repay and that there are other forms of monetary scholastic assistance available to students that are the student is not obligated to repay, it seems clear that student loans or any other contractual obligations to repay a debt do not fall under (state code)," the fund's attorneys wrote in their response. 

The Supreme Court granted Smith's writ of certiorari to consider the case and heard parties' arguments in a special LAWS Program — or Legal Advancement for West Virginia Students — hearing in Elkins.

The LAWS Program summary defined this type of writ is "an extraordinary remedy to review a decision of an inferior court when there is no other statutory right of review provided."

High school students from Randolph, Upshur and Barbour counties sat in the Randolph County Courthouse to hear the four cases on the state Supreme Court docket. The program is a partnership among the court system, schools, the bar and the community to teach students about the judicial branch.

The state Supreme Court held the first of this program in Beckley in 1999. Other programs are in Clarksburg, Huntington, Wheeling, Summersville, Martinsburg, Parkersburg, Charleston, Romney, Princeton, Lewisburg, Moundsville and Charles Town.