INDICT THE MESSENGER

(© 2003 Quentin Bristow)

[A Good Samaritan becomes the suspect in a traffic fatality]

It was very early when Bill Edwards kissed his wife Betty goodbye and climbed into his shiny new black SUV. He had had it just a week and thought it was quite the nicest vehicle he had ever owned. It wasn't to be his day however. He stopped at a 7-Eleven store to pick up a paper. The parking area had a low guard rail and not being quite sure of the length he pulled in a bit too far. There was a discernible thud and he cursed his carelessness. Sure enough, there was a dent on the left front, no paint damage, just the dent, you couldn't ignore it and he knew he would have to get it fixed.

He continued on his way. By leaving early he had the roads pretty much to himself. He stopped at an intersection traffic light. A girl with a bright fluorescent red rucksack was waiting on the other side of the road for the green light to cross in the same direction. The light turned to green and he started off again, suddenly he heard an impact behind him and glanced in his mirror. A black pickup truck was in the intersection he had just left and was now moving out of sight along the other road with tires squealing, He only saw it for an instant. Then he saw the girl with the rucksack, lying crumpled near the curb, part way down the road he was on.

He couldn't believe it, the bastard had run the light, hit the girl walking across and then left the scene. He must have been doing the knots, because the impact had carried her across to the other side of the intersection, and spun her twenty feet along the road he was on. He pulled over and called 911 on his cell phone. Then he walked back to see what he could do for the girl. He found her unconscious, he didn't dare move her and waited for help to arrive. He could see that the rucksack must have taken some of the impact, because it was torn and a pocket cover was missing, it must have had a strap on it, because the buckle on the pocket had been ripped off with the cover. Help arrived sooner than he expected. A rescue vehicle with paramedics and a police cruiser. The paramedics examined her and Bill asked how she was. "Doesn't look good, doesn't look good at all" said one of them, "She's got a serious head injury, all we can do is run her in as fast as possible and pray".

The police officer took a statement from Bill.

"Were there any other witnesses sir?"
"No none"
"You say the pickup truck was crossing this road when it hit her"
"Yes that's right"
"How come she landed twenty feet down this road do you suppose?"
"I have no idea, I didn't see the actual impact"
"Mind if I take a look at your vehicle sir?"

Bill Edwards felt a wave of fear coursing through his body and his pulse quickened.
"No, no of course not officer"
They went back to his SUV and the officer immediately zeroed in on the new dent, as Bill knew he would.
"When did this happen sir?"

Bill explained the circumstances and as he did so he realised that it sounded too pat - as if he had invented the whole thing. No policeman worth his salt would believe that someone with a brand new luxury vehicle would be that careless.

The officer pondered for a while,

"Sir, I am going to have to ask for your licence and registration and insurance documents and we will go back to my cruiser while I check things out"

Bill felt utterly beleaguered, he knew how it looked and this was the classic case. The Good Samaritan winds up being the suspect, simply because there isn't another one to be found. The only person who could testify was in a coma and not in good shape. Eventually the officer finished his routine. He was clearly very reluctant to have to do what he now knew he had to do.

"I am very sorry sir but in view of the only evidence there is, I am afraid I am going to have to take you to the station, where they will decide what action to take"

Bill was thunderstruck, surely they couldn't pick him up on mere suspicion - could they? Well, the officer explained; in a nutshell - yes they could, and what's more they had a duty to do it in a situation like this, where a potential manslaughter case was in play. At the station Bill was interviewed again by a senior officer with the patrol officer present. Following that the senior officer explained that they had no option but to lay a preliminary charge of dangerous driving causing bodily harm, but he added that this would be dropped promptly, with no record being kept, if the girl was eventually able to testify as to what actually happened and cleared him. If that were the case, he would receive an apology and a commendation from the Chief of Police for his prompt action.

Great, thought Bill, I'm going to be either a villain or a hero, with no other option available. He asked to be allowed to see the girl and to be given a report on her condition. The police readily agreed to this request. By the time he reached the hospital, she had been diagnosed and admitted for emergency surgery. The resident who had attended her said that she had suffered a fractured skull, plus some other non life threatening injuries. A portion of the skull had been driven down into the brain, injuring the part that controlled vital functions such as heart beat and breathing. He said that the prognosis for restoration of that control was not good.

Bill was devastated, the police advised him to get a lawyer, because if the girl did not survive, he would be facing a manslaughter charge. Bill didn't know anything about the legal world, all he did know was that the more experienced the lawyer, the better his chances of an acquittal, according to all the TV dramas. So much for justice he thought. One of his friends, Peter Blake, was in fact a policeman and when Bill told him the story, he knew just where to look for a lawyer with experience in that field. "We get grilled by him all the time in cases like this" said Blake, "He always manages to twist up our testimony and make it sound like we don't know what we're doing". The lawyer in question was a Mr. Martin Goldman.

Bill explained the case to him and he agreed to take it on. The first thing he did was to have Bill tell him absolutely every detail of what had happened and what he had seen - even down to the damage to the girl's rucksack. Next he acquired a copy of the police report and the medical report.

"They don't have a shred of hard evidence" he said, after reviewing the documentation. "It's all entirely circumstantial, no jury is going to convict on this and they know it, talk about reasonable doubt - it doesn't even come close"

Then Bill got a phone call.
"May I speak to Mr. Edwards please"
"Speaking" said Bill,

"Mr. Edwards, my name is Dr. Inman, the resident you spoke to the other day. I am very sorry to have to tell you that the accident victim died this morning of her injuries"

Bill was stunned, the nightmare scenario was now reality. The preliminary charge was fleshed out and made formal over the next few days and a trial date was set. Goldman built his case on the total lack of evidence and told Bill that he would argue that this was another instance of the Crown being determined to find a perpetrator for every hit and run fatality for political reasons, and that the present case was yet another example of indict the messenger.

The news turned the Edwards' lives upside down. Betty Edwards was six months pregnant and the prospect that Bill might go to prison for some years hit her like a ton of bricks at a time when she needed all the stability and support she could get and Bill was very concerned that the shock might cause a miscarriage. The unspoken question for her of course was whether or not Bill was telling the truth about the accident. For his part, Bill knew full well that this had to be on her mind, but there was no point in protesting his innocence at every turn.

Neither of them got much sleep in the days which followed as they tried to come to grips with the reality that was facing them. What would they do for money? They had nothing much saved up and were into a long term mortgage for their modest bungalow. They hadn't given the matter of rainy days much thought, nor could they have, because like so many young couples, keeping their jobs and trying to stay out of any serious debt was as much as they could hope to do.

If Bill went to prison, it would be more than just the time he would have to serve. For a start he would lose his present job, that much went without saying, but worse even than that, he would come out at the end of it with a criminal record - not exactly what a man needs on his resumé. Betty had a job, but the pay was only about two thirds of what Bill was making. She would have to try and make do on a reduced maternity benefit when she quit work to have the baby and then face life as a single parent for all practical purposes. They worked out a contingency plan of sorts as best they could, to deal with a future which looked bleak and frankly horrifying. They simply could not believe how one single incident which was begun and finished in a split second, could threaten to ruin their lives in the way that this was doing.

Meanwhile, Peter Blake, Bill's police pal, was particularly incensed at the way he had been treated and was determined to do whatever he could to help him. He had spent a few years in the traffic side of police work and one of the things that he knew from that experience was that a driver who was high on either drugs or alcohol, was invariably on a self-induced roll and unlikely to be deterred by anything, short of being stopped in his tracks by a collision. On that basis he was pretty sure that if the driver of the pickup truck had been that reckless, he was probably high on something and would likely run a few more red lights before he got to wherever he was going.

He knew it was a long shot, but he went to the traffic section at police headquarters where Jack Painter, one of his buddies, was in charge and asked if he could review the pictures taken by the photo radar systems in the area around the time of the accident. He was surprised to find that they were now in colour. There were five pictures taken during the thirty minutes centred on the time of the accident. No surprise there, people tended to run red lights at times like early morning, when there wasn't much traffic around.

He and Jack sorted through them, one of them was a black pickup truck. It wasn't proof positive, but at least it lent support to Bill's story, which was something he badly needed now. "You're grasping at straws Pete" Jack said, "You know as well as I do that the world is full of black pickup trucks that get caught running red lights, it isn't going to prove anything." Peter Blake called Bill and told him about the picture and suggested that Martin Goldman could probably get a print. Goldman made a formal request, citing potential evidence in a manslaughter case and one was sent to him. Bill and Goldman studied it closely, it was quite sharp and showed the licence plate number clearly enough, which is all it was supposed to do. It was rather small, so details were hard to discern.

Goldman sat staring straight ahead for a while in fixed concentration, then he got up and pulled a file of his notes on the case and flipped through to one particular one. "I think we need a blow-up of that print" he said. "Oh really, why?" asked Bill. "Just an idea" he replied. When the enlargement arrived they pored over the photo. It showed the radiator grille in considerable detail and about a foot above the licence plate, snagged by a jagged edge, was a scrap of bright red fluorescent material, with something black attached to it which could be a buckle.

Bill felt quite weak and collapsed into a chair, his hands were shaking. Goldman said "Good God, are you alright, you look as white as a sheet".

"Yes, yes, I'm fine, been under a lot of stress this last little while. Does this give us something tangible to go to court with?"

"It certainly does, for example the police will now be more or less obliged to check this vehicle out, since we have the number and it fits the description you gave in your statement, and the time of day the picture was taken is consistent with the time of this incident."

"What if it turns out to be a stolen vehicle and there is no trace of the pocket cover?"

"Even if that turned out to be the case, this picture showing the missing pocket cover, is in my opinion enough to create a reasonable doubt about your being the villain here, and that is really all we need to get you acquitted."

It turned out that the owner of the truck had a string of speeding, impaired driving and dangerous driving convictions. He had been smart enough to remove the fluorescent pocket cover as soon as he got home, but also stupid enough to put it into his kitchen waste receptacle which he hadn't emptied since before the accident. It took the police about five minutes to find it after getting a search warrant. After that they followed through on their promise and Bill came out as a hero rather than a suspect.

Bill was nevertheless acutely aware that the happy outcome was the result of not one, but a sequence of three incredibly lucky strikes, the combined probability of which must have been about one in a million. "We all live one step away from a nightmare when it comes right down to it" he said to his wife.

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