Two similar fatal accidents, two very different outcomes. Why?

By Scott Graves, Pilot staff writer October 28, 2011 10:19 pm

 

Harold Bickley, 76, fell asleep at the wheel, crossed the center divider on Highway 101 and smashed head on into another vehicle, killing its driver.

Sierra Nicole Rigel, 17, feel asleep at the wheel, crossed the center divider on Highway 101 and smashed head on into a motorcycle, killing the rider.

Bickley was not charged with any crimes – Curry County District Attorney Everett Dial called it “an unfortunate and tragic accident.”

Rigel, on the other hand, was charged and ultimately convicted of negligent homicide.

I wasn’t the only one confused by what appears to be contradictory legal treatment of people responsible for tragic accidents. Iā€ˆreceived several comments from readers wondering the same thing. One of those people was Dave Rigel, Sierra’s father, who sent the following email:

“I have learned what passes for justice in Curry County. If you are a 17-year-old, lifelong resident that has never been in trouble, valedictorian of your high school, and fall asleep at the wheel, tragically killing someone, then the infinitely wise judicial system will throw their full weight behind prosecuting you to the full extent of the law. 

“If you are a 74-year-old tourist, from out of state, and fall asleep at the wheel, tragically killing someone, then they will give you their sympathies and wish you well.

“Apparently ... if you are a 17-year-old-girl and do the same thing, you will be convicted of two felonies that you will carry with you for the rest of your life.”

He concluded, “There are two sets of rules in this county. I just haven't figured out how they determine which set of rules to apply. I was always under the misguided assumption that we are all equal in the eyes of the law. Lesson learned.”

I understand Mr. Rigel’s anger, but I didn’t believe it was an issue of double standards. So I called Dial and asked him why charges were filed in one case and not the other. 

His answer, simply put, is it depends on what the person says or doesn’t say during the course of the investigation.

Complicating the issue is that Sierra’s case was conducted in Juvenile Court and, by law, Dial is not allowed to comments on the specifics of that case. Instead, he addressed the issue hypothetically.

“If a driver says ‘I knew I was too sleepy and shouldn’t have been driving,’ then it’s evidence that needs to be considered,” Dial said.

However, he said, “There are some people who are driving along and don’t realize how sleepy they are.”

That was the case with Mr. Bickley, he said.

Determining whether to file charges, such as negligent homicide, Dial also considers things such as whether the person was using prescription drugs or  under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

“The laboratory reports showed the Mr. Bickley did not have narcotics, alcohol or other substances in his system which could have affected his driving,” Dial said. “There was no evidence which indicated that he had been driving recklessly or negligently prior to the accident.”

Dial pointed out a fatal accident in June 2007, when an 87-year-old male driver hit and killed a jogger along Highway 101 near Lone Ranch Beach.

“In that case we learned that he had failed to take medication he was supposed to, and that affected his driving,” Dial said.

The man, who pleaded no contest to criminally-negligent homicide, was sentenced to three years’ probation, had his driver license suspended and was ordered to pay the widow $10,000.

In Sierra Rigel’s case, there was no evidence of drug or alcohol use. Judge Cynthia Beaman said that Rigel knew she was sleepy and should have pulled over and parked.

“I have found beyond a reasonable doubt she knew she should not be driving beyond that point,” Beaman said at the time of her sentencing in May.

Rigel was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and had her driver license revoked for life. She will be on probation as a ward of the court for a period not to exceed her 23rd birthday. She was fined $214 and was required to pay restitution.

Based on published reports, Dial, Beaman and a Grand Jury found enough evidence to warrant charges of negligent homicide against Rigel.

Her father disagrees. “Sierra took a nap eight hours before she got in the car and she wasn’t sleepy. I listened to the recorded interview she gave (investigators), and she didn’t say she was tired.”

That is why he has filed an appeal with the Court of Appeals in Salem to overturn the conviction, which will likely be heard sometime next summer, he said.

The purpose of writing this column was not to re-argue the case in the newspaper. It was to find a satisfactory explanation of what appeared to many of us to be contradictory treatment of two similar court cases.

Did I find that explanation?

I don’t really know.