Skid Row

Cindy Stewart was killed in a car wreck on state Highway 89 near Prescott on a hot and rainy August day in 1994.

Never mind that she was the mother of four, including 7-year-old twins, on her way to pick up a 14-year-old daughter from band camp at Mingus Mountain.

More scintillating is that she was an exotic dancer at Bourbon Street Circus in Phoenix. And that she brought some methamphetamine along for the ride. And that she shared the drug with the driver, her best friend, Andrea Perdue.

Perdue--who was driving north in an on-again, off-again rainstorm--thinks she hit a puddle near the Word of Life Church. Perdue, a school-bus driver who held a chauffeur's license, says she tried to steer into the skid as she'd been taught. But when she put on the brake, she spun sideways in her own lane and shot across the road into the path of a southbound Honda, which creamed her 1993 Geo Prizm on the passenger side. Cindy Stewart's neck was broken, her head turned backward, her arm severed.

Stewart's family sued not only Perdue but the state as well, alleging that flaws in the road's surface and shoddy maintenance caused the accident.

Predictably, the state argued that the drugs were to blame and the condition of the road was not a factor. The state was so sure it would win this case, it offered the Stewart family $5,000 to settle before trial, and never bettered that offer.

The jury might have bought the meth theory and been done with it. But it didn't, and the state's legerdemain in the case, and its lax upkeep of its roads, were big reasons.

In the end, jurors believed that the assistant state attorneys who defended the state--Deborah Spinner and Terrence Harrison--tried to hide test results and reports that suggested the road might have been in bad shape. The jury also suspected that the two assistant AGs destroyed evidence, including blood samples that might have showed Perdue was not impaired at the time of the accident. At the same time, jurors thought the state Department of Transportation employees who testified were less than credible. One changed his story about road-test results after his boss told him the boss's own testimony.

It didn't help the state's case that the judge nailed Spinner several times during trial, even stopping the proceedings to instruct the jurors that she was wrong or in violation of a court order.

Now, Arizona taxpayers are on the hook for nearly $1 million--the state's share of the $3.79 million verdict the jury decided was due the Stewart family.

And the case, which finally went to trial in January after pre-trial haggling dragged on for nearly four years, raises questions about the safety of Arizona's highways and the state program that is supposed to inspect them.

"I came out of the case saying I think the state stunk," says James Tramel, a 62-year-old aerospace engineer who served as a juror.

He was one of two jurors who refused to sign the verdict form. Six jurors did sign it. Tramel won't say exactly why he didn't sign, only that he disagreed with the verdict. But lawyers who spoke to the jurors after the trial say Tramel and another juror told them they thought the state deserved more punishment.

"The jurors were not trying to stick it to the taxpayers," Tramel says now. "I think every one would say it was the state's presentation, and if they hadn't looked like they were trying to hide things, it would have been a much different case."

Yavapai County declined to prosecute Perdue for the accident even though a blood test showed the presence of methamphetamine in her blood. Officers said she didn't seem to be impaired when they talked to her at the scene, and she wasn't speeding.

The jury assigned 60 percent of the blame to Perdue. Her attorney says she has no money and no job; her insurance policy will only pay $50,000 if the verdict is upheld.

Jurors tapped the state for 25 percent of the damages, which works out to about $940,000. In acknowledgement that illegal drugs were a factor that couldn't be ignored, the other 15 percent of the blame was put on Stewart herself.

Two weeks ago, the state filed a notice that it would appeal the verdict. Citing that appeal, Karie Dozer, spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office, says no one from her agency feels comfortable discussing the Stewart trial.

"They don't want to be talking about it out of school," Dozer says. She also declined to address whether anyone in the AG's Office has reviewed Spinner and Harrison's conduct. There are no complaints or disciplinary action against either Spinner or Harrison on file with the state bar association.