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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Driver acquitted in deaths of Kansas City-area cyclists

A Jackson County, Mo., jury deliberated for five hours before finding William K. Johnson not guilty of two counts of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of cyclists Larry Gaunt, 59, and Larry's grandaughter, Sierra Gaunt, 14, the Kansas City Star reported in today's editions.

On Aug. 6, Larry Gaunt was helping Sierra prepare for an MS-150 bike ride, a long-distance ride that benefits victims of multiple sclerosis. The two were cycling on Raytown Road nearing Harry Truman Drive when Johnson’s blue 1985 Chevrolet pickup slammed into their bikes, throwing them to the pavement. Larry Gaunt died at the scene. Sierra died at a hospital.

According to the Star's story, prosecutors considered Johnson's action reckless enough to be considered at tim. They pointed to police calculations that determined that Johnson was going at least 54 mph in a 45 mph zone. They called witnesses who testified that the road was flat, straight and dry. They continually went back to evidence that showed the left lane next to Johnson was completely clear.

A portion of the Star's account is particularly interesting:
That’s what baffled assistant prosecutor Traci Stansell. When Johnson took the witness stand Wednesday, he said he often drove that stretch of road. He knew cyclists frequented it, he said.

He was 960 feet — more than three football fields — away from the Gaunts when he first saw them. And more than 12 seconds passed before he caught up to them. Yet Johnson, a handyman who was taking his son to football practice, agreed that he never moved into the open left lane and never slowed down until slamming on his brakes right before the impact.

Just because Johnson did not move over, that did not make him a criminal, defense attorney Brian Greer argued.

“There is no law requiring operators of motor vehicles to switch lanes of a roadway when there is a vehicle on the shoulder except when that vehicle is law enforcement,” he told jurors.
Greer questioned much of the state’s evidence, especially calculations by police that determined Johnson was speeding. During closing arguments, the Star reported, he said the state took wrong measurements and failed to consider the truck’s weight when computing its minimum speed.

The jury forewoman told the Star that deliberations were divided at times, and that jurors discussed a lesser charge, but came to the unanimous decision on acquittal. When asked what they relied on to reach that decision, she said: “The evidence that we had.”

The Star's story has generated 11 pages of comments as of noon. Most are supportive of the Gaunts, but there are some anti-bike comments thrown in the mix.

The KCBike.Info blog had this to say about the verdict: "Many people will be shocked and upset at the verdict, but it’s important to remember that this case was brought to justice. Unlike most cases in this area, this particular motorist was actually charged with a felony and went to trial. Regardless of the outcome, just the fact that it went to trial is huge step forward for traffic justice in Kansas City."

This afternoon, the Missouri Bicycle Federation made a statement about the verdict on its Web site. It contains interesting comments from Ken Cobb, a lawyer and avid bicyclist who is active in the Johnson County (Kan.) Bicycle Club, including this one: "We don't know if any cyclists were on the jury. We also know that a certain percentage of people don't think that cyclists should be on streets in the first place, which may have been a factor in the jury room, too."

In an earlier post on the St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation's message board, MoBikeFed Executive Director Brent Hugh said: " I know many of you have been following this case. The verdict shows how far we have to go in Missouri to have a justice system that can address this type of issue."

Here's links to TV coverage of the verdict:

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Roger 2 comments links to this post 12:20 PM

Our culture and the respect for the life of others needs to change.
What the jury also didn't get to hear is that Johnson had been arrested for doing 95mph in a 70mph zone less than 3 week prior to the accident and that he had several insurance lawsuits as a result of traffic accidents in the last 10 years. Inadmissable evidence that would have truly explained this guys "driving style" as Johnson himself put it.
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