Two years ago, a 28-year-old postal worker named Bryant Wilkerson was hit by a drunk driver, a teenage girl who'd been partying with her friends all day on the Salt River and had the blood alcohol content to prove it.
That day, Wilkerson's life changed forever, but not in the way you might think. This, after all, is Maricopa County. We don't do things according to Hoyle. Our idea of "justice" is straight out of Kafka.
So despite the teen driver's intoxication, and despite testimony from numerous witnesses that she'd illegally attempted to pass Wilkerson by speeding over double yellow lines into a no-passing zone, sheriff's deputies decided that Wilkerson was to blame for the collision and the death of the teen's passenger. A report from the sheriff's department six months after the crash raised serious questions about that assessment. But the County Attorney's Office has continued to cling to its original notion of the case.
In the prosecutors' telling, then, Wilkerson is the bad guy, and the drunk teenager, Laura Varker, is the victim. Charged with everything from manslaughter (for supposedly causing the death of Varker's 15-year-old passenger) to endangerment (for putting Varker, the teen drunk, at risk), Wilkerson could be looking at two decades in prison.
Wilkerson is black. Varker, the teenage girl he collided with two years ago this May, is white. I know I'm not the only person wondering whether that's played a role in the way the county attorney has handled this case.
Indeed, it was truly weird to watch the details unfold as Wilkerson's trial began last week in Maricopa County Superior Court.
For one thing: Where else will you ever see the County Attorney's Office attempt to downplay underage drinking?
The lead prosecutor, Rene MacGregor, used her opening argument to lambaste Wilkerson for drinking on the day of the accident — but when it came to Varker, she noted only that her party of girlfriends was "doing what they wanted to do at the river that day — which was have fun." Yes, MacGregor conceded, "there was some alcohol." Then she quickly changed the subject back to Wilkerson, explaining that he'd drunk beer, smoked pot, and showed signs of impairment, according to the cops. He was supposedly having tremors. Why, there was a strong odor of alcohol on his breath!
Never once did she mention that Wilkerson's blood alcohol content, taken at roughly the same time as Varker's, was significantly lower than the teen's. Nor did she mention that Wilkerson, unlike Varker, was well within the legal limits. Not relevant? Hardly.
Meanwhile, the jury has heard from witness after witness attempting to convince them that then-17-year-old Varker, who was legally barred from having any alcohol in her bloodstream, wasn't staggering or stammering. Oh, they say, she was just fine. Never mind that her blood alcohol content was over the legal limit for adults. For the prosecutors, apparently, if a teenage girl is good at holding her liquor, it's okay for her to hop on the highway, sans seatbelt, and start passing in the no-passing zone.
Hey, she seemed okay to her friends!
And speaking of Varker's friends . . . Where else will you hear prosecutors objecting to testimony about a top-secret meeting held between private investigators and several key witnesses, days before the sheriff's deputies could interview those witnesses?
In most cases, if something like this came to light, the County Attorney's Office would be screaming about obstruction of justice. But in this case, it was Laura Varker's parents who pulled the stunt — just 24 hours after Varker's SUV began rolling like a tumbleweed down the Bush Highway, killing her passenger. The very next evening, the Varker family wasn't in mourning; they were already working on Dear Daughter's alibi.
So Mom and Dad summoned Varker's friends who'd been on the Salt River that day. Then they were separated and asked to speak to private investigators, presumably hired by the family's lawyers, according to trial testimony. By the time sheriff's deputies got around to attempting to interview the same witnesses days later, they didn't want to talk.
Where do you think they got the idea to zip their lips?
Normally, shenanigans like that would make a prosecutor livid. Not so in the case of State v. Wilkerson. Since Bryant Wilkerson is the bad guy, prosecutors are actually objecting to the defense team's attempts to elicit testimony about the next-day meeting.
Remember: Here, in this warped and crazy world, the teenage girl who was driving drunk is the "victim."
See what I mean about Kafka?
Wilkerson's trial began March 16 in the courtroom of Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Teresa Sanders. Sanders is a former deputy county attorney, one who made her reputation by aggressively pursuing rapists and murders. She was also known for having real compassion for victims.
But anyone expecting Sanders to favor her former office need not fear. I've been enormously impressed by the judge's handling of this case. She's a warm, low-key presence who really pays attention to detail — and has been scrupulously fair in deciding what evidence the jury should hear. Bryant Wilkerson may have gotten railroaded by sheriff's deputies and the County Attorney's Office, but at least he's getting a fair trial.
Wilkerson's big problem is one that his attorney, Michelle Carson, did her best to mitigate in her opening argument: He fled the accident scene.
That's a serious crime in itself, no question. And Carson didn't mince words. "Bryant Wilkerson is completely innocent of all charges except one," she told the jury, "and that is leaving the scene of an accident."
I first wrote about this case a little over a year ago. At the time, I was mostly concerned with the disparity in how Varker and Wilkerson were being treated. Here he was, facing charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault, and a half-dozen counts of endangerment — and yet prosecutors refused to charge Varker with so much as a DUI, despite medical records showing she'd been legally intoxicated.
Thanks to our criticism, the County Attorney's Office did turn the case over to another agency to determine whether Varker should also face charges. Ultimately, Mesa prosecutors charged her with five misdemeanors, including DUI and underage possession.
But despite her involvement in a fatal accident, Varker's DUI was treated lightly. She was granted a plea bargain in which the county attorney guaranteed that she'd never face additional charges for the May 2007 accident. All she had to do was plead guilty to one misdemeanor and spend one day in jail.
As it turns out, unlike Wilkerson, Varker's record is far from spotless. Court records show arrests for shoplifting — and, more recently, underage consumption.
Amazingly enough, those offenses didn't derail the plea agreement. In fact, the DUI plea was expanded to close the books on a totally unrelated for shoplifting arrest. One day total for both the DUI and the shoplifting — we should all be so lucky.
Wilkerson, meanwhile, was unable to post bail after his arrest on the evening of the accident. He simply didn't have the money, so he was stuck in Sheriff Joe's jail for three months. Even though he finally got sprung, he's been on house arrest for nearly two years, waiting for trial.
All the while, Wilkerson has assured me, he's been willing to plead guilty to leaving the scene of the accident. He knows he screwed up. He just refuses to believe that he's guilty of causing the accident.
Naturally, the county attorney has refused to make a reasonable plea deal.
It's become increasingly clear to me since the first week of the trial that we're here not because Wilkerson is any more guilty than Varker. In fact, the public defenders are making a strong case that just the opposite is true.
No, Wilkerson is on trial because the sheriff's deputies made a bad assumption, and then the county attorney refused to change his tune even after new evidence contradicted that assumption.
The sheriff's deputies assumed that the guy who fled the scene must be drunk, so they handled him as if he were. You can see it throughout their reports: Supposedly, Wilkerson had a "strong order of alcohol" on his breath. Supposedly, his eyes were bloodshot.
When deputies eventually did the most reliable test for assessing his blood alcohol content, it was just 0.01 — barely a trace of booze in his system.
By then it was too late. They were already convinced that he was to blame.
And then there was Laura Varker, the pretty white girl in a bikini driving her daddy's SUV.
Never mind that the backseat of the SUV was littered with beer cans, or that Varker had used a fake ID to buy booze for her friends. No one even thought to perform sobriety tests on her. The sheriff's deputies didn't realize they needed to check her blood alcohol content until they started looking at her hospital records. Then — duh! — it suddenly became clear this story was more complicated than they'd originally assumed.
What to do?
If you're Andrew Thomas, you proceed, apparently, as if your first impression is more important than the subsequent facts. Black guy guilty; white girl victim.
Which brings us to the big question: Why did Bryant Wilkerson flee when he wasn't drunk?
I suspect that everything in his experience as a black man living in Maricopa County told him that, no matter who was at fault, he'd be the suspect. That was an atrocious decision — by fleeing the scene, he turned suspicion into probable cause.
But it turns out that he was right to be a little paranoid. Despite an appalling amount of evidence to the contrary, the county attorney insists that Wilkerson's at fault not just for leaving the accident, but for causing it.
The reasons for that became sadly clear in court on Thursday, when a sergeant in the Sheriff's Office took the stand. This was the guy who'd done the initial field sobriety tests on Wilkerson after the fatal accident.
But when it came time to identify Wilkerson in court, the sergeant got a little flustered. Wilkerson was sitting between his two public defenders, Michelle Carson and Chuck Whitehead. Unfortunately for the sergeant, Whitehead is also black. I could see the sergeant squint and do a double take as he tried to remember which one was the "bad guy" and which one was his lawyer.
"He looks a lot different than my first contact with him," the sergeant said, explaining his confusion.
In that instant, I remembered Wilkerson's mug shot, taken just after the accident. In it, he looks nothing like the quiet family man I've gotten to know. His hair is longer and crazier. He's wearing a T-shirt. He looks like a 20-something stoner, a guy that any cop would assume is up to no good.
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The defense objected when the County Attorney's Office entered the mug shot into evidence. But Judge Sanders allowed it in, and I think she was right to do so. In that photo, you can see Bryant Wilkerson as the sheriff's deputies saw him. And you can see all too clearly just how he got screwed.
I don't know if the jury is going to see through the criminal justice system's appalling rush to judgment. This is a complicated case, and any time you have a guy fleeing the scene of a fatal accident, it's hard not to judge him for it.
But should he rot in jail for years on end because he reacted stupidly when a teenage drunk hit him? Not when the teen got off with one day in jail.
Our county attorney has botched this case beyond recognition. The question now pending in court is whether the jury will get that.