Halfway through Bryant Wilkerson's trial for manslaughter, aggravated assault, and a host of other felony counts, a juror had an interesting question for Judge Teresa Sanders.
The question has yet to be posted to the public record, so I can't tell you the precise phrasing. But the gist was this:
What is the real reason Bryant Wilkerson is being prosecuted in this case and Laura Varker isn't?
Amazing. Only one week into the case, and this woman juror understood what the Maricopa County Attorney's Office has refused to acknowledge for two years: The wrong driver was on trial.
Like Judge Sanders, I can't answer the juror's question. After three weeks in the courtroom, in fact, I'm still wondering: Why did the county attorney pursue Wilkerson so zealously?
Where else but Maricopa County do we prosecute a guy who gets hit by a drunk driver? Where else is justice so skewed that when a drunk white teen breaks every traffic rule in the book and crashes her SUV into a black man's Hyundai, we blame the black guy?
Really, after a question like our perceptive juror's, is anyone surprised to learn that the jury deliberated for just 90 minutes last Thursday before rejecting virtually every charge against Wilkerson? The Maricopa County Attorney's Office spent two years pushing this dog of a case and three weeks litigating it — only to see the jury reach a series of eight "not guilty" verdicts in less than two hours. Ouch.
The jury did find Wilkerson guilty of leaving the scene of an accident that he did not cause, but that was hardly a victory for the prosecution. Wilkerson's defense attorney acknowledged that he was guilty of just that in her opening argument.
I'm getting used to these Andrew Thomas specials: We taxpayers get to spend tens of thousands of dollars so the County Attorney's Office can bungle the prosecution of an innocent man.
But there's a twist here.
Usually when I write about the poor schmucks Thomas hauls into court, I conclude that although they beat the rap, they still lose. Anyone who faces felony charges — and fights them all the way to trial — can expect at least $100,000 in legal bills. A jury trial is that expensive.
This one was no exception. But this time, it's not Bryant Wilkerson who must pay the piper.
Wilkerson worked the night shift at the post office when he got hauled off to jail. Like many a 28-year-old blue-collar worker, he was broke.
Because Bryant Wilkerson had no money, he was forced to use a public defender. And though his public defenders did a heck of a job, don't forget this part of the equation: We the taxpayers foot the bill for them, too.
Consider it our penance. We knew that Andrew Thomas had screwed up this case. (I first told you about it in January 2008.) We knew that he's a media whore with little regard for justice. (I've told you about many similar travesties.)
We re-elected him anyway.
So now we're stuck with the bill for both prosecution and defense on a case that should have never seen the light of day?
Serves us right.
I've already written three columns about Bryant Wilkerson, who was attempting a legal U-turn on the Bush Highway in May 2007 when the driver behind him, Laura Varker, grew impatient and attempted to pass him on the left. That foolhardy move sent Varker over the double yellow lines, into a no-passing zone, and directly into his path.
When Wilkerson's Hyundai clipped Varker, she was going 45 mph — and accelerating. The impact sent her SUV flipping over and over, killing her 15-year-old passenger.
That's when Wilkerson made a mistake: He panicked and fled the scene.
By the time sheriff's deputies caught up to him a few minutes later, they'd decided he was the bad guy. Wilkerson was charged with nine felony counts.
But blood tests proved that he wasn't drunk — and that Varker was. Amazingly, until New Times got involved, Varker faced no charges, not even DUI.
Under pressure from us and the local chapter of the NAACP, the county attorney asked another agency to consider charges against Varker. Phoenix city prosecutors ended up charging the teen with five misdemeanors, including DUI and purchasing liquor with a fake ID — but she was given full immunity against additional charges in exchange for spending just one day in jail.
One day. That's even as the county attorney insisted that Wilkerson plead guilty to charges that would result in seven to 10 years in prison.
Thank God for Michelle Carson.
Carson, 42, has been with the Public Defender's Office for four years, the entire time she's been a lawyer. That's not a typo: Carson went to law school after a career in human resources. She earned her degree at 38 and promptly went to work representing the kind of people who rely on public defenders for their defense.
But, as I've learned, just because a guy can't afford a lawyer doesn't mean he's guilty. Go figure.
To most of us, a young black man in a Bob Marley T-shirt who admits to smoking pot is surely the guilty party. But Carson quickly saw through the stereotypes. She realized the level of cannabis in Wilkerson's bloodstream was so minimal that it could hardly be detected, much less impact his driving.
She also began to realize that, contrary to first impression, the crash wasn't Wilkerson's fault.
An investigator in the Public Defender's Office, Harry Ryon, first raised questions about the case. A former Los Angeles cop and a pro at accident reconstruction, Ryon approached Carson bluntly.
"He came to me and said, 'Your client didn't cause this accident,'" Carson recalls. Ryon's reconstruction showed clearly that the teenage driver was speeding left of the center lane — a fact verified by eyewitnesses.
The prosecutors didn't seem too interested. They never performed an accident reconstruction of their own. Instead, they stubbornly persisted in their original theory.
When Wilkerson insisted on his innocence, the public defenders agreed to take the case to trial.
"I have to thank my office for that," Carson says, still sounding giddy three days after the jury verdict. "I didn't pay for this defense; the taxpayers did. My office is under enormous strain right now with cost-cutting in the county, yet they stood by him the whole way."
Wilkerson made it known that he'd plead to a felony for leaving the scene of an accident. Prosecutors weren't having it.
"We did everything we could not to be there in trial," Carson says. "But when we had to, the office did not shirk its responsibility."
Carson took this case personally, and I think the jury could see that.
The prosecutor was a self-satisfied schoolmarm, nagging the jury about the dangers of a 210-pound man who drank three or four beers, even while ignoring the 110-pound girl who supplied her friends — and herself — with bottles of malt liquor.
But Carson was an angry mother bear protecting her young even as she put Laura Varker on trial.
"It's unbelievable that you are responsible for the drunk driver behind you now," she told the jury. "Who cares how many laws they break? He's more accountable. Well, how can you be accountable for a drunk driver passing you in a no-passing zone? So he not only has to follow the traffic laws, but he has to enforce it for every driver behind him, too?"
As she finished her closing argument, Carson displayed a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Pointing to Wilkerson, she told the jury that she didn't know why he was treated differently than Laura Varker.
"But I know that he was," she says. "He was treated very, very differently. Acquit him, because he did not do this."
When the jury announced their verdict the next day, Carson put her head in her hands and wept.
It was hard to celebrate the verdict when it came down, as much I wanted to.
And that's because Jennifer Bither was in the courtroom, sitting behind the prosecutors. When the verdict was read, Bither gave a hoarse cry and fled the room.
A petite blond who was a regular presence at the trial, Bither is the mother of Felicia Edwards, the 15-year-old girl who was killed that day on the Bush Highway.
We never really got a sense of Felicia at trial. The prosecutors, oddly, downplayed Edwards' presence at her own death scene. Her tragic end, I imagine, raised too many questions about the "friend" who served as her chauffeur.
But we did learn several things. We learned that Felicia was nicknamed "FeFe." We learned that she was a wisp of a girl with gorgeous green eyes, a dimple, and olive skin. And we learned that she wasn't drinking that day. Not one drop was found in her blood.
Jennifer Bither told me that was the daughter she knew; Felicia hated alcohol. The girls she was hanging with that day were a much faster crowd than her usual group: "I looked at the pictures of her that day and I thought, 'That's not my Felicia.' She doesn't look comfortable."
Indeed, Felicia had told her mother she was sleeping over at a friend's house. It wasn't until Bither got a text message from one of her daughter's friends — a text message! — that she realized her daughter had been tubing at the river, much less that she'd been in a serious accident.
Bither had Felicia when she herself was just 15. "I grew up with her in a sense," she says. "That was my best friend and my baby. She was my sunshine. If you could have seen her — her personality just shined. She just wanted everybody to be happy."
Bither says she's still not sure who was to blame. She's devastated that both Varker and Wilkerson are off the hook, but she just doesn't know what to think. "I'm still wondering what really happened," she says.
After three weeks of trial, the jurors had more certainty.
Mike McBride works in undergraduate admissions for ASU. After serving as a juror on the case, he says his big question was this: "How did this case get as far as it did?"
"In the end, I saw Bryant as the fall guy," McBride told me in an e-mail. "It was a case for which the state could have saved much money, time, and pain. I feel the event was a horrific accident and I can't imagine the pain Felicia Edward's family has had to endure these past two years.
"But Bryant Wilkerson was not responsible for the accident."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Wilkerson will be sentenced for leaving the scene of the accident on May 6 — almost exactly two years after the collision. He's already served three months in jail. He spent one year on house arrest and has had another year of regular urine tests after that. Every one has been clean.
Several jurors have said they'll attend the sentencing. After sitting through three weeks of trial, they've chosen their side.
They're rooting for Bryant Wilkerson.