Andrew Thomas Prosecuted Bryant Wilkerson for a Crime He Didn’t Commit. Thank God for the Jury

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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske