Vehicular Homicide and Manslaughter Convictions Being Reversed as Drivers Blame Corporations for Auto Defects

Last month, a judge in Pennsylvania reversed the involuntary manslaughter conviction of LaKisha Ward-Green.

The judge found that a faulty General Motors ignition switch contributed to her crashing into a school bus, killing her boyfriend who was sitting in the passenger seat of the vehicle she was driving.


In a similar case last year, a judge cleared Candice Anderson in the death of her boyfriend, Gene Mikale Erickson.

Anderson pled guilty to criminally negligent homicide in the case in 2007.

It turned out that the GM ignition switch was involved in the deadly crash.

In 2007, Kuoa Fong Lee was convicted of vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison for a 2006 crash that killed three people. But Fong Lee was was released from prison in 2010. Lee’s lawyers argued that the 1996 Toyota Camry Lee was driving suddenly accelerated and Lee couldn’t stop it.

“Opponents of white collar criminal prosecutions argue that corporate managers should not be charged criminally for regulatory violations because health, safety, and environmental rules are too complex to understand and violations of such arcane requirements do not cause real harm,” says Rena Steinzor, author of Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction. “Both arguments are revealed as hypocritical by the criminal prosecutions of three drivers who had fatal accidents as a result of a defect that the manufacturers’ executives covered up. All of these accidents caused fatalities and the drivers were charged with versions of vehicular manslaughter or reckless driving or not learning from a proper driving school. Only after suffering through great hardship and, in one case, two years in prison, were they exonerated by belated disclosure of corporate malfeasance. The cases are just the latest example of the double standard that prevails between street and white collar crime.”

Now comes Cristina Small.

She’s looking for a lawyer to get her fiance, Bryan Harrell, out of prison.

Harrell is in prison for 15 years after pleading guilty to one count of vehicular homicide in connection with the death of four year old Remington Walden.

In March 2012, Walden was riding in the rear seat of a Jeep Grand Cherokee when it was hit on the rear end by Harrell’s truck. The Jeep’s gas tank was located behind the rear axle. Walden survived the crash but burned to death in the inferno that engulfed the Grand Cherokee.

The Center for Auto Safety says that more than 70 people have burned to death in similar Jeep Cherokee crashes.

Walden’s parents sued Chrysler. A Georgia civil jury found Chrysler to be 99 percent liable for the death of Walden and Harrell to be one percent liable.

The jury ordered Chrysler to pay the Waldens $150 million.

A judge has since reduced the award to $40 million.

Christina Small attended every day of the two week civil trial against Chrysler. The trial was held in Bainbridge, Georgia — the site of the crash.

“There was not one Chrysler employee there to show any remorse for this child’s death,” Small told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “They had some expert witnesses and every single one was caught in lies after lies after lies. They were paid anywhere from $700 to $1000 a hour to testify for Chrysler.”

“There was the lady who did the autopsy report. She found that Remington Walden burned to death. He was still alive in the Jeep when it exploded. The only thing he suffered from the collision was the bone fracture in his leg. If it wasn’t for the misplaced gas tank — eleven and a half inches from the rear bumper behind the rear axle, Remington would still have been alive. If the gas tank were located in front of the rear axle, like in most vehicles, Remington would still have been alive. Putting the gas tank behind the rear axle is just setting yourself up for failure.”

Small says that when she sees a Jeep Grand Cherokee now, she tries to find the owner to warn them of the danger.

“I pray for every single person who rides inside them,” Small said. “I pray that they don’t have a child inside. I do pass them going down the highway. And of course, I can’t stop in the middle of the highway. But if I see a vehicle parked in a parking lot of a store, I will wait outside until the people come back to their vehicles. And I will walk over to the vehicle and show them their gas tank.”

“And I will show them — this is your gas tank — this is not safe. I will tell them that my fiance was in a wreck and a four year old child burned to death. This vehicle is not safe. If you get rear ended, your vehicle is going to blow up. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a high speed or a low speed collision, this vehicle is going to blow up. They had evidence in the courtroom of several cases where they showed pictures of people in the same kind of accidents and the vehicles just barely had a scratch on them and blew up. The gas leaks and it catches on fire. There is nothing to protect the gas tank.”

“I’ve told at least fifteen to twenty people how dangerous these vehicles are.”

Have you convinced anyone to turn in their Jeeps and get a different car?

“A few,” Small said. “I saw one lady at Walmart walking to her Jeep. I said ma’am — may I please show you something? I showed her her tank and how dangerous it was. And I said — ma’am you need to get yourself a different vehicle. This is very dangerous. She said she was going through a divorce at the time and she could not afford another vehicle and that was the only means of transportation she had. Another lady who worked at a store, I told her– and she acted iffy about it — like oh, okay. But every time I would go that store, I would say — are you doing something about that vehicle? Your baby is riding in that vehicle — it’s dangerous. If you get in a wreck, your babies might not get out safe.”

Small says that the district attorney tried to charge Harrell with a DUI, “because Bryan had a past.”

“But Bryan was not DUI,” Small says. “He had changed his life around. I was pregnant with his child.”

Why would they charge him with a DUI if he was not —

“He has a history in Bainbridge. Bainbridge is a very small town. They already had it out for him.”

They charged him with DUI with no evidence that he was drunk?

“Not that he was drunk. Evidence for drugs.”

He had a history of drug use?

“Correct,” Small said. “And that had nothing to do with this wreck. He was not DUI that day. We hired the expert witness from Atlanta. This expert went deeper down – and there was not enough to register on the lowest calibration test. The DUI was thrown out. When the DA saw this expert witness come into the courthouse, he automatically went into the room and dropped the charge from the DUI to reckless driving. And it came out in the civil suit against Chrysler that Bryan was not driving recklessly. He was following the traffic laws that day.”

Small says that at his plea hearing, Bryan told the judge what happened.

“After Bryan told the judge what happened, the judge says to Bryan — You are telling me it was an accident?”

“Bryan said — yes sir, I am.”

“And the judge said — it wasn’t homicide by vehicle, it was just an accident?”

“Bryan said — yes sir.”

“And the judge said — it sounds like to me I can’t accept this plea either if he is not guilty.

“Then the transcript says — discussion off the record between client and counsel.”

“This is when his lawyer got him to be quiet. His lawyer forced him to take this plea.”

“Then Bryan says — yes sir, I can attest to the reckless driving part because I feel that when I was letting off my brake, I still should have been on my brake. And that to me would qualify as the reckless driving part on my behalf.”

“That’s not right.”

“Bryan then says — in my heart, I felt it was an accident. But I knew I had something to do with it. And that’s the reason for the plea today.”

“The judge says — were you in fact drinking?”

“Bryan said — no sir.”

Bryan or his lawyer didn’t raise the issue of the Jeep tank being placed behind the rear axle?

“No,” Small says. “We were new parents. The lawyer said — if you don’t take this plea you are looking at 30 years in prison. His lawyer said 50 percent of him wanted to take it to trial and 50 percent did not want to.”

[For the complete q/a transcript of the Interview with Christina Small, see 29 Corporate Crime Reporter 34(13), September 7, 2015, print edition only.]

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