Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Teresa Sanders had never seen anything like it.
Sanders was in court Friday morning to sentence Bryant Wilkerson, a 30-year-old Fountain Hills postal clerk whose cause was championed by both New Times and the NAACP.
Wilkerson was involved in an accident in May 2007 that killed 15-year-old Felicia Edwards. The case drew national attention because the Maricopa County Attorney's Office charged Wilkerson, who is black, with nine felonies, even while letting the teenage drunk driver who hit him, Laura Varker, off the hook.
Wilkerson's lawyers argued that Varker was ultimately responsible for the crash -- and, thanks to their efforts, the jury refused to convict Wilkerson of any changes other than one he'd offered to plead guilty to from the beginning, a single count of fleeing the scene of an accident he did not cause. (Until New Times got involved, Varker wasn't facing so much as a misdemeanor; she eventually was charged with driving under the influence, but not cited for the crash.)
But Deputy County Attorney Rene MacGregor was still out for blood. And, go figure, the prosecutor addressed her ire toward Wilkerson, not the well-to-do white teen who sped into him.
In an impassioned speech to Judge Sanders, MacGregor argued that Wilkerson should get six months in prison. She even tried to argue that "the fact that the kids were drinking -- that had nothing to do with this crash." Oh, really? Since when does the County Attorney's office feel that teenage drunk driving doesn't cause collisions?
But Friday, Wilkerson wasn't only represented by his ace public defenders, Michelle Carson and Chuck Whitehead. No fewer than five jurors came to lend their support, urging Judge Sanders to give Wilkerson probation and (in a few cases) blasting the County Attorney's office for its handling of the case.
Juror Ellen Thomas, a retired teacher, expressed frustration with "helicopter parents" who let their children run wild, then hire lawyers to get them off the hook.
"This is a rich man, poor man case," Thomas said. "The rich parent is allowed to get their child free of any charges. The poor man is held responsible for everything that happened."
Other jurors agreed.
"It's a tragedy, it's horrible, but the person that should be paying is not in this room today," said Gail Dempsey, the jury forewoman. "Today she's off galivanting around somewhere. Just because she's not here does not mean we take the person who shows up and make him pay more for it!"
Sanders acknowledged that the jurors' presence was something new.
"I've handled maybe 100 jury trials," she said. "I have never had a juror speak on behalf of the defendant. I have never had that happen before."
The scene in the courtroom was tense. For the first time, Wilkerson and his wife were accompanied in court by their two teenage daughters, one of whom began quietly sobbing as the prosecutor made her argument for prison. Meanwhile, on the other side of the courtroom, was Jennifer Bither, mother of the 15-year-old girl killed in the accident that day. Bither, too, argued for prison time.
But Sanders was moved by Wilkerson's clear remorse -- and, perhaps, the support of so many jurors. She sentenced him to three years of probation.
"He cannot be held accountable for Felicia's death," the judge said. "Even his illegal behavior didn't contribute to Felicia's death. The emergency personnel were there very quickly ... even if Mr. Wilkerson had done everything he was supposed to do, unfortunately, it would not have made a difference."
Sanders noted that she had no power to hold the other driver, Varker, accountable. The County Attorney's office signed off on a plea deal that stated she cannot face any additional charges for what happened in the accident, in exchange for Varker doing one day in jail. "I can't do anything about the other driver," Sanders said. "That's totally out of my hands."
Wilkerson spent three months in jail after his arrest and subsequently lost his job as a night clerk with the U.S. Postal Service. And he's not off the hook by any stretch of the imagination: Bither sued both Wilkerson and the teenage girl who was driving her daughter, Laura Varker. The Varkers settled, court records show. And, just this month, Wilkerson's civil trial concluded with him being found 35 percent at fault in the death of Bither's daughter; he now faces a $500,0000 bill.
Ironically, the drunk teen whom the county attorney's office failed to prosecute, Laura Varker, recently suffered yet another infraction on her driving record. On May 5, city prosecutors filed charges against her in Phoenix Municipal Court for failure to yield at an intersection, records show.
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Since the incident two years ago, Varker has also faced charges for shoplifting (twice) and underage consumption.
Speaking to New Times by phone later Friday, Jennifer Bither said she doubts Wilkerson's sincerity and has little sympathy for his family in light of what her younger children have suffered. "I saw his daughters in there weeping their eyes out," she said. "Well, my daughters do that every day."
But Bither also announced that she's established a scholarship in her daughter's name. The Felicia Edwards scholarship will honor three female students at North Canyon High School, all of them daughters of single parents who've earned a 3.0 grade point average or higher.
"I want to get something positive out of this," she said. "Let's take the focus off of Bryant getting off. Let's take it off that and make sure something positive comes out of it. If I can impact another child's life the way my child impacted mine, I want to do it."