Local News

Tuesday, Sep 25 2012 06:39 PM

Attorney: CHP asks for manslaughter charge against deputy who struck, killed pedestrians

BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

The California Highway Patrol is recommending a criminal charge be filed against a Kern County sheriff's deputy who struck and killed two pedestrians in late 2011,according to an attorney representing one of the families in a civil case.

The investigative reports submitted by the CHP to the District Attorney's office recommend Deputy John Swearengin be charged with vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence in the Oildale crash that killed Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley.

Attorney David Cohn, representing the Hiler family in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against Swearengin and the county, said Tuesday that the reports say Swearengin was driving at 80.2 mph an eighth of a second before impact. The reports say the deputy applied his brakes about half a second before impact and was traveling about 60 mph when he hit the two.

Cohn said he finds it hard to believe the deputy's speed decreased by 20 mph in that time, and that he has his own team of experts who will review the evidence. The posted speed limit on the roadway is 45 mph, Cohn said.

The charge of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence is recommended in part because of the deputy's excessive speed and the fact he was driving at that speed without lights and siren on, Cohn said the reports say.

District Attorney Lisa Green has said the entire report, which is more than 200 pages, will take her office some time to review.

The report also said Swearengin was driving without his overhead lights or siren on, Cohn said. Jolley and Hiler were not at fault, Cohn said the reports say.

"They were legally entitled to be in the location they were in while crossing the street, and had (Swearengin) been driving according to the speed limit they would have been out of the street and there would have been no wreck," Cohn said.

Attorney Oliver Robinson, who is representing Swearengin, could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday night.

Chief Deputy County Counsel Mark Nations said Tuesday he hadn't seen the report yet and didn't know anything about the dynamics of the crash, the deputy's speed or other details. Nations is representing the county in the civil claim.

Sheriff Donny Youngblood said the incident involved a sheriff's department employee but it's not the department's investigation and has to wait and see what happens.

"We're waiting for the DA to review the reports and we'll go from there," he said.

Sheriff's officials have previously said Swearengin was taken off paid administrative leave and was working desk duty.

Kern County Superior Court Judge David R. Lampe has given a starting trial date of Aug. 5, 2013 for the civil trial. Attorneys on both sides said it would take some time to go over all the evidence, and Lampe set a 10-to-12-day trial estimate.

Thomas Brill, attorney for the Jolley family, said setting a trial date that far in advance isn't unusual. What is unusual, he said, was the length of time it took for the CHP to complete its investigation into the crash.

He said in his 26 years of experience this is the longest investigation he's ever encountered.

The Jolley family's wrongful-death lawsuit has been consolidated with the Hiler family's suit.

The lawsuit alleges Swearengin acted recklessly and in conscious disregard of the public's safety by driving at an excessive speed and without emergency lights or sirens through an area known to have high pedestrian traffic.

The CHP submitted its report on the crash to the District Attorney's office last week following about nine months of investigation. The agency's Fresno-based Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team handled the bulk of the investigation.

The team was called out the night of the Oildale crash that killed Jolley and Hiler. It typically looks into crashes that might lead to civil litigation, officer-involved shootings or really horrific crashes that local officers need help on.

CHP Capt. Bill Nation has said the investigation wasn't overly long considering the magnitude of the incident and that MAIT was involved.

Prosecutors, officers and attorneys have all said the team's report regarding this crash is very lengthy.

Swearengin struck and killed Hiler and Jolley the evening of Dec. 16 as they were crossing south on Norris Road near Diane Drive while pushing a motorcycle. The deputy was responding to a report of a stolen vehicle.

Hiler and Jolley died at the scene, and Swearengin was treated for minor injuries at a hospital. The CHP has said Swearengin was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

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