Bryant Wilkerson Faces Prison for a Fatal Accident. But if a Drunk Driver Hits You, Is It Your Fault?

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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske