Traffic fatality cases under review

October 22, 2009 5:02:56 PM PDT
A son can't understand why the charges against the person who crashed into his parents' SUV were tossed out. Kenneth Roberson's parents were killed in that crash. Dozens more families could soon be put in the same position.The Harris County District Attorney's Office threw out the case of the tow truck driver who killed Roberson's parents, even after he pleaded guilty to negligent homicide. Now we've learned the DA is reviewing 100 similar cases.

Our interview was over before it started and that makes getting answers a little tough. What we do know is that the Harris County District Attorney's Office is putting dozens of cases on hold, cases that grand juries and prosecutors once thought were felonies. Now they're all being reviewed.

The law hasn't changed, but the DA has.

A jury convicted Danny Shipp of evading arrest Thursday afternoon and he will serve serious prison time. But less than he was originally facing when he was charged with felony murder.

At the end of a four mile police chase in 2008, Shipp ran into Dr. Wesley Gustafson, who died. But two weeks ago a judge threw out the murder charge, dropping it to evading arrest and the DA's office didn't appeal. It seems to fall in line with the DA's view of other cases lately.

"I don't care how you look at it, it's murder," said Kenneth Roberson.

His parents were killed in a collision with tow truck driver Sergio Gonzalez in 2006. Even though Gonzalez pleaded guilty, the DA dismissed the case last week.

"In my mind he's guilty. In his mind, he's guilty. So what's the problem?" said Roberson.

Senior Harris County prosecutors put a hold on all 100 pending traffic fatality cases. So far, they've reviewed two and dismissed them both.

We went to the DA's office to ask them why this review is being conducted. But as we were setting up for the interview, they stopped us and chose not to answer the questions on camera. As we were pressing for details on the cases that had been dismissed, First Assistant DA Jim Lightner called an end to the interview before it even started.

For defense attorneys though, this review is a welcome development.

"The DA's office went overboard, certainly in some of them," said criminal defense attorney Mark Bennett.

In recent years, the Harris County DA's Office had a reputation for aggressively prosecuting traffic deaths, charging school bus drivers and texting drivers with felonies. Those days may be over.

"There is a line at which we need to prosecute the people who do wrong and hurt other people. The question that I have is where do we draw the line and more importantly in terms of the Harris County DA's Office, who was watching?" said Bennett.

The family of the man Danny Shipp hit while fleeing police got some justice Thursday. Shipp wasn't convicted of murder, but was convicted of something.

After further review, Kenneth Roberson is still wondering what justice will be for his parents and how many other families may be in the same spot.

"I hope that we can come together and form a team to work against what the DA's office is trying to do," said Roberson.

Off camera, we were told the review is in the interest of justice and that accidents are sometimes just that, accidents. There's no timeline to end the review, so it could mean postponing some cases.

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