Deputy Sean Pearce's speeding case went into overtime last week after a Glendale city judge said he discovered only recently that a death was involved.
Pearce, a veteran Maricopa County Sheriff's Office detective and the son of recalled State Senator Russell Pearce, was on duty when he plowed into a small SUV on December 16, 2013, killing 63-year-old John Edward Harding.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said last year that his office would not press felony charges against Pearce because of various mitigating factors, including the presence of a third vehicle that may have obscured the view of both Pearce and Harding.
The prosecutor's decision meant Pearce would face no serious legal consequences for the collision. But the city of Glendale kept pursuing potential traffic violations related to the case.
Pearce admitted responsibility for a criminal traffic speeding ticket he received in the case and completed a defensive-driving class earlier this month.
In an unexpected twist to the case, Glendale City Judge Manuel Delgado said in court last week that he had learned the speeding ticket was related to a death, meaning it was possible Pearce was never eligible to take a defensive-driving class.
State law on the subject says: "An individual who commits a civil or criminal traffic violation resulting in death or serious physical injury is not eligible to attend a defensive driving school, except that the court may order the individual to attend a defensive driving school in addition to another sentence imposed by the court on an adjudication or admission of the traffic violation."
New Times obtained and reviewed an audio recording of the March 11 hearing for this post.
Delgado explained the reason for the hearing once he had the lawyers from both sides of the Pearce case in the courtroom: He'd heard important information about the case from outside of the court record, he said.
The information came to him after someone had made some public-records requests, he told the lawyers. (New Times made a records request prior to our March 9 blog post about Pearce's speeding ticket.)
Delgado said he hadn't read anything "personally" in the news media about the case, and in any case he had to double-check the validity of the information. The judge explained the above-mentioned law, then told the lawyers, "The reason I have you here today, both of you, is one simple question: Uh, was there serious physical injury in this case, or death?"
The lawyer with the Glendale City Prosecutor's Office -- we're still trying to get the person's name -- said "yes."
Patrick Gann, Pearce's lawyer, also said "yes" -- and told Delgado he'd informed the court of that fact during previously.
Delgado was skeptical. He'd listened to an audio recording of the proceedings "several times" and heard no mention of "death or serious physical injury."
Gann answered that he'd actually said it twice during prior court hearings on the case but that he sometimes speaks very softly and he's "not certain everything was captured" on the recording.
Gann agreed he'd told the judge Pearce was eligible for defensive-driving class. He claims Pearce is eligible because speed wasn't the primary factor that caused the crash -- it was the blocked view by the third vehicle.
"It is not proper for this court to sit in judgment and determine it was the speed that caused the death," Gann argued.
The judge said he's "inclined" to take the position that Pearce wasn't eligible "and shouldn't have gone to defensive-driving school to begin with."
With the issue of whether Pearce was eligible for driving school unsettled, Delgado set another hearing on the matter for April 8 at 1:15 p.m.
The judge voiced his consternation before closing last week's hearing: "I just felt that I was not being given some details that should have been given to me. So obviously, I had some concern about candor in the court."
Rob Walecki, Glendale City Prosecutor, didn't return New Times' messages seeking comment.
Pearce has been on the force for more than 20 years. In 2004, he was shot in the abdomen by an illegal immigrant during a raid that later became the basis for another one of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's political scandals. Pearce's father, a former MCSO deputy himself, helped author many of Arizona's tough immigration laws before being unseated in a 2011 recall election. The elder Pearce resigned last year as first vice chair of the Arizona Republican Party after saying on a radio program he endorses the sterilization of Medicaid recipients.
Montgomery, a GOP politician now in the middle of his first full term in office, in June derided speculation of a political fix in Sean Pearce's collision case as "amateur analysis."
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