An Allegheny County, Pennsylvania judge reversed the involuntary manslaughter conviction of a woman after determining a faulty General Motors ignition switch contributed to her crashing into a school bus that killed her passenger. LaKisha Ward-Green, 25, pled guilty to manslaughter and reckless driving in 2012 because at the time no one knew that her car was malfunctioning. She served 3 months in jail before her attorney appealed after finding out about the GM defect.

Police determined that Ward-Green was driving 75 mph in a 35 mph zone when she crashed killing Robert Chambers IV, 16, whom she was giving a lift home from school. Last year, GM recalled 2.6 million vehicles like Ward-Green’s Chevy Cobalt because of ignition switches unexpectedly turning off, causing cars to stall, disabling the air bags, power steering, and brakes.  A “black box” inside her vehicle recorded her speed going up to 75 mph before the crash, but her attorneys said that she was avoiding another car that was recklessly driving and that her car had returned to the regulated mph before the crash.  Prosecutors in this case do not support overturning the conviction. The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office has appealed the judge’s decision citing the fact that Ward-Green could have maintained her innocence and refused to plead guilty, but chose not to.

In September of 2010, Ward-Green’s car’s ignition suddenly went into accessory mode, cutting off her steering and braking power.

“I don’t know how fast I was going but I wasn’t speeding” when the crash happened, she said in an interview, responding to police accusations, “I was just going down the street. The brakes didn’t work. Nothing worked.”

Ward-Green’s statements were consistent with what is known about GM defect crashes, but at the time, her mother told her to pled guilty because no one believed her and her family didn’t want her to face a long jail sentence.

Other people have been cleared after their crashes were linked to GM’s faulty ignition switch, but the total number of people wrongfully linked to crashes is unknown.

Candice Anderson felt responsible for her fiancé’s death 10 years ago after police convinced her there was no other cause for the accident, but her. She was 21 at the time when her car lost control and crashed into a tree killing Gene Mikale Erickson. She pled guilty to criminally negligent homicide.  She has lived with survivor’s guilt ever since. Anderson was driving a Saturn Ion. Airbags in the car did not deploy.  In 2007, before Anderson entered her guilty plea GM conducted an internal review of her crash and quietly ruled the car to blame, but never told anyone, including Anderson or the police.  After the crash, her parents had to liquidate their retirement to get her a defense attorney. She served 5 years on probation and paid more than $10,000 in restitution. She also completed 260 hours of community service and counseling.

She suffered serious injuries in the accident, including a damaged liver and broken ribs.

57 deaths have so far been linked to the GM defect, which GM knew about and didn’t report for more than 10 years.

“GM knew this defect caused this death yet, instead of telling the truth, watched silently as Candice was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. It took 10 years for GM to find its voice. How many district attorney’s around the country are now wondering if they may have sent an innocent person to prison?” said Robert Hilliard, Anderson’s attorney, “…If there were others who were wrongfully prosecuted, GM should take affirmative and aggressive steps to have those convictions immediately overturned.”

Anderson was on her last chance to get her conviction wiped away, a writ of habeas corpus, which was granted by Judge Teresa Drum.

“Candice Anderson has lived with this wrongful conviction for too long,” Hilliard said, “GM allowed the victim to be convicted. Now, on the day of the hearing to prove it was GM and not Candice, GM admits what it has known since 2004.”

GM’s lawyer Richard Godfrey confirmed in a letter to Hilliard, “the crash involving Ms. Anderson is one in which the recall condition may have caused or contributed to the air bag non-deployment…”

“I doubt we will ever know the number or be able to bring justice to all of those folks,” Hilliard said.

GM spokesman Jim Cain said that the automaker would cooperate, but the issues were for a “courtroom” and “separate…from the performance of the vehicle.” GM has made it a standard policy not to take a stance in criminal proceedings involving their cars.

Anderson had been trying to build a career as a home health aide, but this was derailed when she became a convicted criminal. To be accepted to nursing school, she had to petition the Texas Board of Nursing and pay for a psychiatric examination to prove her mental stability. With her criminal record, she would have been barred from at-home caregiving and hospice work.

GM has set up their victim compensation fund to evaluate claims without considering any contributing negligence. So it is possible that the people convicted of crimes they did not commit will qualify for some compensation.

In Anderson’s case, the prosecution supported her conviction being overturned. In July, the District Attorney of East Texas Leslie Poynter Dixon wrote a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons asking for the conviction to be set aside, “I believe (GM’s defect) caused her vehicle to seize up, locking her steering and making any control of her vehicle impossible…It is my opinion that no action or omission of Ms. Anderson was the cause of the accident that led to her criminal charges. Had I known at the time that GM knew of these issues and has since admitted to such, I do not believe the grand jury would have indicted her.”

In total, a record 64 million vehicles were recalled in 2014, many were on the road for more than a decade in their dangerous condition. Experts expect an increasing number of wrongful conviction proceedings to emerge from this tragedy.

“When defendants claimed their cars shut off or sped up all by themselves, the claims seemed too far out to create a doubt that was reasonable. Now we know better,” said University of Michigan law professor Erik Gordon.

Daniel Perkins was also charged and convicted before GM finally admitted their ignition problem in 2014. Perkins, then 18, was driving a 2006 Cobalt in New York in May of 2006 when he lost control and crashed. His car rolled injuring him and killing his friend, Joseph Doerfler, 18. The air bags never deployed.  Like others in his position, with no one believing that the car just didn’t respond and GM hiding the defect, he pled guilty to negligent homicide. He served 6 months. He was awarded a settlement from GM, as was the victim’s family.

Sidney Cominsky, his attorney, said, “He just sat there teary-eyed and said, ‘I knew it wasn’t my fault.’”

In at least one case, charges were filed after the defect became public knowledge leading to criticisms that prosecutors aren’t taking the issue seriously.  Zachary Stevens, then 19, was driving his mother’s 2007 Saturn to Bible study in Houston when his car suddenly veered onto the shoulder and back across the highway striking a pickup, killing the driver. Stevens suffered a brain injury that left him without memory of the accident. He was arrested in 2014 and charged with manslaughter. Accused of “intentionally driving” in a reckless manner and causing the death of the pickup driver, Mariano Landaverde, 40, he faced a maximum of 20 years if convicted.

He spent 8 months in the court system. A private investigator working with his defense attorney was able to link the crash to GM’s defect and the charges were dropped. By then, his family had spent $70,000 trying to exonerate him of the accusations.  The GM admission didn’t stop investigators from charging Stevens and they made no effort to even investigate the possibility of a link.

The Landaverdes settled with GM. GM offered the exact amount the family spent on Stevens’ criminal defense as compensation, but the family didn’t want it. Compensation isn’t just restoration.

Sources:

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