Initially charged with manslaughter, a local attorney accused of causing a five-car collision while driving under the influence will only face probation after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor last week.
Court records indicate Margaret McDowell Miller entered a blind plea to a third-degree assault charge April 5 — more than a year after she was charged with manslaughter, assault and DUI after police say she caused a five-vehicle collision where one of the motorists later died.
The Mobile Police Department said Miller was “allegedly under the influence of alcohol” in December 2016 when her Ford Explorer rear-ended a vehicle driven by 71-year-old Jian Chen, resulting in a chain reaction that ultimately involved three other vehicles.
During a field sobriety test, Miller allegedly “displayed clues and indicators of being impaired,” leading to her initial arrest. Chen was transported to a local hospital but was later airlifted to a hospital in Pensacola for more specialized care. He died on Jan. 6.
Five days later, Miller’s charges were upgraded to include manslaughter, but a grand jury declined to bring that charge against her. Instead, the indictment returned in August 2017 included four lesser charges — two misdemeanor assaults, DUI and reckless driving.
Miller’s attorney Josh Briskman wasn’t privy to the grand jury proceedings but told Lagniappe questions came up during the initial investigation about whether the collision that led to his client’s manslaughter charge directly contributed to Chen’s death 10 days later.
“She was charged with manslaughter, but that was before the medical examiner in Florida had a chance to arrive at an opinion as to the cause and manner of the death,” Briskman said. “There was a thorough fact finding as well as an autopsy, and what they determined was that Mr. Chen’s very unfortunate passing could not be linked to the injuries suffered in the car accident.”
Asked if he could provide a copy of Chen’s autopsy report or death certificate, Briskman said he did not pursue those documents after the grand jury rejected the manslaughter charge against Miller. A similar request to the Florida Department of Medical Examiners is pending.
Initially, Miller maintained her innocence against all charges, but pleaded to a single assault charge after the other was dismissed. Briskman said Miller’s DUI is being handled through deferred prosecution and would also be dismissed if she complies with her sentencing.
Third-degree assault is a Class A misdemeanor in Alabama, and Miller was sentenced to nine months in the Mobile County Metro Jail. However, that sentence was suspended by Circuit Judge Rick Stout in favor of an 18-month period of formal probation.
He also gave Miller credit for time served following her arrests, which records indicate was about eight hours, collectively.
“The press around this thing was a lot for her and so, to resolve the case, we entered into a best interest plea to one of the assault charges,” Briskman said. “It’s been our very strong contention from the inception of this case that Mrs. Miller was not drinking at all that night.”
Briskman said his client was overcharged initially, adding that — in his opinion — prosecutors were “too quick to pull the trigger” and should have waited until all the facts were in. However, Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich told Lagniappe she still feels Miller’s initial manslaughter charge was appropriate.
“[Her attorney] is certainly welcome to have his opinion.” she added.
Asked about the autopsy results that Briskman referenced, Rich said “there was a report from a medical examiner here locally that says things differently,” but declined to comment further because her office did not handle the case.
While the charges originated in Mobile County, court records indicate local prosecutors recused themselves from pursuing the case, which prompted the office of Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall to take over. Most briefs in the case were submitted by Assistant Attorney General John C. Hensley III.
Typically, recusals occur when there is a real or perceived conflict of interest between a prosecutor, defendant or victim, and Rich told Lagniappe she “didn’t feel it was proper” for her office to handle Miller’s.
A website for Miller’s law firm says she focuses on “complex litigation and business law” but has represented defendants and plaintiffs in “state and federal criminal cases.
“This was an attorney here in town who had practiced in District Court and had appeared on behalf of criminal defendants before a number of our Assistant District Attorneys,” Rich said. “It just doesn’t make sense when we have the AG’s office that’s perfectly willing and able to step in and help if there’s some kind of connection.”
Briskman noted the AG’s staff would have presented evidence to the local grand jury without anyone from Miller’s defense present, adding that “whatever was put on by the Attorney General, the grand jury decided this was not a manslaughter case.”
Outside of the courtroom, it does not appear her charges have affected Miller’s standing with the Alabama Bar Association. Briskman said the association is aware of the situation but hasn’t made any final determination.
He also said Miller has previously reached a private civil settlement with members of Chen’s family. Though he couldn’t give details, he said “there was some remuneration” involved.
However, a letter submitted to Judge Stout by Chen’s son, Yu Chen, indicates the family thought Miller should have faced a harsher punishment and found the situation “unfair.”
Regardless of the medical examiners’ conclusions, Chen wrote that, “the reason cause my father passed away was accidents,” adding that if he had a prior health condition the family wouldn’t have allowed him to drive or to help with yardwork.
“Mrs. Miller is an attorney. Drinking while driving is illegal she know,” Chen wrote. “She probably drive 100 miles per hours hit five cars at red light. Should be because alcohol. She should stay in the jail for those cause five cars damage and kill my father.”
You can read Yu Chen’s full letter to Stout at lagniappemobile.com.
Correction: An earlier version of this story claimed Miller’s website make’s no mention of criminal defense experience. In fact, the website states Miller has represented defendants and plaintiffs in “state and federal criminal cases.” Updated at 12 a.m., April 12.