For three weeks, jurors heard testimony in State v. Bryant Wilkerson, as the Maricopa County Attorney's Office attempted to a convince them that a 28-year-old Fountain Hills man was guilty of manslaughter, aggravated assault, and multiple counts of felony endangerment.
It took the jury less than two hours today to find Wilkerson "not guilty" of all those charges. In fact, the jury found Wilkerson guilty of just one charge -- fleeing the scene of an accident he did not cause.
Wilkerson's attorney, Michelle Carson, had acknowledged in her opening argument that Wilkerson was guilty of doing just that. And, unbeknownst to the jurors, Wilkerson had been more than willing to plead to that charge from the beginning.
But the Maricopa County Attorney's Office had insisted on a plea deal that would have required Wilkerson to plead to a much more serious offense and spend seven to ten years in prison -- despite serious questions about his handling of the case from this newspaper and, later, the Arizona Republic.
Wilkerson, who is black, was executing a legal U-turn on May 5, 2007, when he was struck by a drunk driver. But the driver, who is white, was only charged with DUI, while Wilkerson faced a host of felony charges.
At trial, Wilkerson's defense attorneys, Michelle Carson and Chuck Whitehead, pinned the accident solely on the drunk driver, 17-year-old Laura Varker. And Varker certainly didn't help the prosecutors' case with her testimony: Alternately snippy and ditzy, she looked like the sort of teenage driver who gives teenage drivers a bad name.
Wilkerson, on the other hand, proved to be an enormously sympathetic witness. Admitting that he made a terrible mistake by panicking and leaving the scene, he was in tears as he described learning that Varker's 15-year-old passenger was killed in the collision.
After the verdict, Wilkerson gave a big hug to both Carson and Whitehead, then joined his family in the hallway. "I feel wonderful," he said, beaming. "I went up there and told the truth. The facts were the facts."
Wilkerson's mother, Catherine Belyea, has been a regular presence at the trial. A visiting nurse, she says she was "lucky" to be assigned to work in Phoenix during the time of the trial. "Every one of us has been praying," she said. "This just shows the power of prayer."
But Wilkerson's family continues to question why prosecutors singled him out while Varker, who was legally intoxicated and in a no passing zone at the time of the crash, was allowed to skate with just one day in jail.
"I call Arizona an 'outlaw state,'" Belyea says. "That's how I describe Arizona to people from out of state."
We'll have a complete report on the final week of trial testimony in next week's print edition.
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