DA's case reviews bring new concerns

HOUSTON We first told you about the review of dozens of traffic death cases last month. The DA had dismissed three fatality cases and more were under review. Since breaking that story, we spoke with a veteran accident investigator who told us he's worried about what the DA is doing.

A senior team at the DA's office is going through more than 100 cases to make sure the charges are in line with their view of the law. They're not saying how much progress they've made, but one experienced law man is saying it's already enough to make his job tougher and may make your commute more dangerous.

Deputy David Pearson has been to a lot of traffic accidents during his 20 years as a Harris County accident investigator.

"I've personally investigated over 200 fatality crashes," said Deputy Pearson.

In talking to him, you get the sense that this isn't just a job and that the losses he sees do take a toll. Even though it was a City of Houston case, Deputy Pearson was asked to use his expertise to review the fatal accident that killed Maureen and Leon Roberson. His analysis concluded the wrecker driver was negligent and should've been charged.

You may remember police said Sergio Gonzalez was speeding when he drove that wrecker into the couple in October 2006. Gonzalez pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide, but after the plea the DA's office went back and dismissed the case, angering the family and leaving Deputy Pearson confused and concerned.

"There's nothing more disturbing as in this case that a family thinks someone is being charged with the death and have the case dismissed after a plea. It certainly sends the wrong message," said Deputy Pearson.

The wrong message to law enforcement who has to figure out if crimes are committed in these accidents and the wrong message he says to everyone who drives Harris County roads.

"It makes me angry because if that's going to be perceived as OK to do in the county, then we're fighting a losing battle if we're not able to present good evidence and having something done when a crime is committed," Deputy Pearson said.

The DA's office walked out of an interview weeks ago on this topic and refused another request last week. In a written statement, they said the DA's vehicular crimes section strayed from office practice in the cases they're currently reviewing and say it should have no impact on how law enforcement does its job.

But it has and the reviews have left at least one veteran investigator looking for an explanation we can't get from the DA.

"We'd at least like to hear what's changed in their interpretation of the law as far as whether charges will be taken," said Deputy Pearson.

When we asked him if they had explained that to him, Deputy Pearson replied, "Not at this point, no."

We sent these specific concerns in writing to District Attorney Pat Lykos last week, but we got that written response instead. It is lengthy so the entire written statement is posted below with our questions in italics:

Statement from Harris County DA's Office on Case Review

Due to the on-going review of cases described below, an on-camera interview is not appropriate. The following information is provided in response to your email inquiry of October 30th.

Why did we initiate the review of traffic accident cases that resulted in a death?

The Vehicular Crimes Section had deviated from the long-standing practice of this office concerning what was necessary to raise a civil negligent traffic accident case to that of criminal negligence. A senior prosecutor advised the Special Prosecutions Bureau Chief that the section was not following protocol. That triggered the review.

How is the review proceeding?

The review is on-going by a team of senior prosecutors. When the review is complete, we expect to have a further statement for the press.

What guidance do we have for law enforcement agencies pending the review?

This review by prosecutors is separate from the investigations by law enforcement agencies. The investigation process of traffic fatalities should continue as it always has. Our evaluation of a case after an investigation is complete does not alter the way the police agency investigates. A full and complete investigation is mandated in every case.

Response to the suggestion by an accident investigator that our review of certain pending cases could potentially make the roads more dangerous?

Our streets are not made less safe by an accurate application of the law to the particular facts of an investigation. Our job is to see that justice is done in each case.

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