When Domingo Diego caused a fatal accident that resulted in the death of a local teacher, his status as an illegal immigrant drew national attention. Yet, Diego is just one of a number of defendants who are or could be facing criminal charges from an automobile accident.
That’s in part because of a law passed in 2017 in response to the death of Marshall Walton, the son of a prominent local contractor, John G. Walton, who was killed after being struck by a distracted driver on a construction site off U.S. Route 45 in 2015.
At the time there was no existing criminal statute for vehicular homicide because it had been repealed the year before. According to Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich, that original statute made vehicular homicide only a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to five years in prison.
After a push from his family, the Marshall James Walton Highway Safety Act was passed by the Legislature in 2017. The law added a “homicide by vehicle” charge back into Alabama’s criminal code and upgraded it to a Class C felony punishable by up to 10 years in state prison.
It also expanded how it could be applied. In short, today vehicular homicide can be applied to anyone who causes a fatal accident while “knowingly engaging” in a traffic violation. Rich says it’s “a very important area of the law,” but clarified her office isn’t in the business of prosecuting every traffic accident.
“If you went technically by the definition as it’s written, it says: ‘you violated a rule of the road and caused a death,’ but the main thing it’s important for the public to know is that every traffic crash is not a criminal event,” Rich said. “True accidents do happen and we’re not prosecuting accidents, but if the conduct causing the crash is egregious it can rise to that level.”
Richard Williams, who is one of two attorneys representing Diego, said he understands the need for the state to hold people accountable for distracted and careless driving. However, like some other defense attorneys in Alabama, he’s expressed concerns about how broadly the new statue can be applied — even if Rich says she’s only pursuing it in “egregious” cases.
“When anyone is involved in an accident, someone is negligent. The question then becomes whether they were criminally negligent,” Williams told Lagniappe. “In order for it to meet that standard, it can’t be a situation where a stop sign was obstructed or you just didn’t see it. It’s supposed to be that the driver just ignored it.”
Proving someone intentionally disregarded a traffic law might be as difficult to prosecute as it could be to defend, but Williams said it’s “pretty damn easy” for the state to reach the standard established in the 2017 definition of “homicide by vehicle.”
In his case, Diego, 16, is accused of driving a vehicle the wrong way down U.S. 98 on March 18. Police say he crossed into oncoming traffic and caused a head-on collision with a car driven by Sonya Jones, a local teacher and mother who died as a result of her injuries.
Court filings suggest Diego also attempted to flee on foot before collapsing. He was treated at a local hospital and charged with vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of an accident.
That accident was clearly caused by a traffic violation, which could make it a prosecutable offense under the 2017 vehicular homicide statute. That said, neither Diego’s attorneys nor local prosecutors seem to know why he was on the wrong side of the road that morning.
That’s not the only concern Diego’s attorneys have going into his case. Williams noted his client’s legal status has continued to draw significant media attention amid the U.S.’s ongoing policy debate over illegal immigration.
“This young man should only be judged in this case based upon the acts that occurred that day,” Williams said. “We’re going to be trying very hard, as you can imagine, to keep people from judging him based on the fact that he’s not a legal resident or a citizen of the state of Alabama.”
While Diego’s case may be the most notable, it’s one of three prosecutors have brought against local motorists in the past month alone. Earlier this week, Rich told Lagniappe her office is investigating another fatal accident that could potentially result in a fourth arrest.
A grand jury indicted Michael Rodrick Evans on a single charge of “homicide by vehicle” in March related to a fatal traffic accident in 2018.
Evans allegedly failed to stop at a red light on Forest Hill Drive and caused the death of Michael Breland, 72.
He pleaded not guilty to that charge last week and his bond was set at $15,000. A hearing for Evans has been set in May, though he currently remains in custody at the Mobile Metro Jail.
Also last month, a fatal accident claimed the life of a construction worker on Dauphin Island Parkway.
Clay Crutcher, who was coincidentally employed by John. G. Walton Construction Co., was struck and killed by a Bishop State Community College vehicle on March 13.
No charges have been filed and the driver hasn’t been identified at this point. However, police and investigators from Rich’s office are continuing to evaluate whether criminal negligence could have been a factor in the crash.
“We are investigating the incident to see if we can use the new vehicular homicide statute or to see if there are any extenuating circumstances that would make it rise to that level,” Rich added.
In some cases, Rich said, prosecutors can seek even more serious charges if the conduct of a driver is particularly egregious. While she wouldn’t comment on the specifics of any case, that appears to be what happened with the charges 18-year-old Wilkinson Nichols Howes is facing.
Howes was only 16 when police say he caused an accident on Lloyd’s Lane in 2017 that killed Claudia Leatherwood and seriously injured one of her two children. A police report from the incident suggests Howe was driving 92 mph in a 30 mph zone at the time of the accident.
Last month, he was indicted on a manslaughter charge, which is a Class B felony and carries a possible prison sentence of two to 20 years.
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