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.