Good news and bad news from the courts
While many cyclists were able to take some solace in the recent sentence handed down to the now-infamous road-rage doctor in California, we need to remember that the problem of rider safety continues to be a serious one on American roads.
As many of us paid close attention to the case of Christopher Thompson and his intentional assault on riders in Mandeville Canyon, near Los Angeles, another trial was underway in Nottoway County, Virginia, involving even more serious consequences. Unfortunately, the outcome has proven to be far less satisfactory to cyclists in the area and especially heart-breaking for those close to rider Kevin Flock, who was killed while riding on an empty, seemingly safe, divided four-lane road on a Sunday back in May.
Regular readers might recall that the case was first brought to our attention by Flock’s friend and partner, Jo Morrison, who sent a note to me, back in October. I’ve spoken with Morrison since and she promised to update us on the case as it progressed through the courts.
A week after we originally heard of the case, attorneys representing defendant Aaron “Trey” Stapleton attempted to have the case dismissed on the grounds that Stapleton was driving a government vehicle at the time of the accident and driving it in his capacity as a recruiter for the National Guard. Despite the fact that he appeared in court in full uniform, the court rejected Stapleton’s claim that he was immune to Virginia state traffic laws under the provisions of Title 44 of the Virginia Code – The Military Laws of Virginia – which bars members of the National Guard from being prosecuted in the course of carrying out their lawful duties. The 26-year-old Stapleton was bound over for trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter, because a grand jury found his actions on that May afternoon demonstrated “such gross, wanton, and culpable negligence as to show a reckless disregard of human life.”
Stapleton’s trial, however, did not produce a result even remotely similar to that of the L.A. road rage trial. On Monday, I received a note from Ms. Morrison confirming her worst fears:
It’s over: Not guilty on involuntary manslaughter; not guilty on reckless driving; guilty on improper driving and a fine of $500. That’s all Kevin was worth. This guy has a prior DUI, and reckless driving with speed but the jury didn’t hear that. Can you please investigate or something and publicize this? I can’t talk tonight, I’m spinning … right back to May 31.
I can’t even imagine how difficult it was for Jo to hear that decision when the jury came back from its deliberation.
It’s disappointing, but not entirely surprising, that Nottoway Commonwealth Attorney Mayo Gravatt couldn’t introduce evidence regarding Stapleton’s prior history. Most courts in the U.S. operate under rules of evidence that are quite similar to those used in the federal system and the introduction of “prior bad acts” is limited to a set of very specific circumstances. In the November 5, 2009, edition of “The Explainer,” I touched on a few of the problems faced by prosecutors as they attempt to let a jury know that a defendant has a record. In Stapleton’s case, his driving record might have been admissible had he raised a “mistake” defense, but I have not read the trial transcript and don’t know if his history was even an evidentiary question.
We assume that Stapleton might still be subject to military discipline and could still face further civil action relating to Mr. Flock’s untimely death, last May. We will try to keep you informed.
Attorney behaving badly
This and other cases remind just how frequent such encounters result in injury and death to riders all around the country.
Regular readers of VeloNews.com are, of course, familiar with the L.A. road rage case. Many of you may also be familiar with the objections one reader raised to our frequent references to Christopher Thompson’s profession.
Other readers have responded with their own arguments, and I won’t go into a lot of detail rehashing the topic, beyond saying that other editors and I actually did discuss the question of whether Thompson’s profession was a relevant element of the story, when we first learned of it nearly two years ago. After some back-and-forth, we decided that a medical doctor’s professional ethic carries with it an additional burden and when those duties are violated, it warrants attention.
Indeed, like doctors, attorneys are also bound by a set of specific ethical guidelines and, as “officers of the court” are supposed to demonstrate exemplary respect for the law. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, as was recently demonstrated by Colorado attorney Jeffrey Detlefs, who somehow decided that it was both okay to drive his car (with his three children aboard) while allegedly under the influence of alcohol, and to simply keep driving after he struck and injured cyclist Rex Hegyi (who also happens to be an attorney).
Hegyi was injured, but fortunately survived, although he has been on medical leave from the Jefferson County Public Defender’s office since the accident. Detlefs was later arrested after witnesses were able to provide a description of the car … and the fact that his front license plate fell off when he struck the rider (kinda hard to explain that one away, eh counselor?).
Perhaps with a firm grasp of the obvious, Detlefs opted to plead guilty to vehicular assault, leaving the scene of an accident and one count of child abuse (for doing the above with his kids in the car). He’s scheduled to be sentenced on April 9, and faces up to nine years in prison.
Like Dr. Thompson – whose medical license is currently under suspension – Detlefs is likely to face disciplinary action from the Colorado Bar and could easily lose his license to practice law. The defendants in both of these cases have been involved in professions that carry with them an extra duty to the public. When that duty is breached, we reporters tend to highlight that aspect of the story.
I, for one, think it’s only fair.
In writing about Dr. Evil’s L.A. road-rage trial, the Virginia case, the bad lawyer and other often-tragic conflicts between cyclists and automobiles, I’ve noticed a relatively wide disparity in how these cases are handled by prosecutors. Indeed, that apparent disparity – including one terrible (and never prosecuted) case in which a friend lost her leg in accident involving a 15-year-old driver here in Laramie, Wyoming – prompted my old riding partner (a criminal law professor) and me to consider working on an a law review article about those prosecutorial decisions and whether bike/car incidents are treated differently than cases involving two cars or even auto/pedestrian accidents.
Many of you have already shared personal and news stories about such incidents, be they accidents or intentional criminal acts. A number of them, particularly when a prosecutor opts not to charge a driver because he or she “has already suffered enough” (a direct quote from one case), are especially heart-breaking. Others just elicit what can best be described as a (and please excuse my acronymic French here) WTF?!? reaction. What we’d like to do is attempt to see whether cases involving cyclists are actually treated differently by prosecutors and, if so, what legislative action might be necessary to rectify that disparity.
While a law review article will involve much more than simply offering anecdotal evidence, we would still be grateful if you could send us examples of cases in your area, particularly if the news stories offer insight into how a prosecutor reached a decision whether to pursue a case or not. Ordinarily, I would encourage you to send those to my VeloNews account, but in this case, I would prefer it if you mailed those to me at my personal account.
Meanwhile, be safe out there.
Email Charles Pelkey