Old Convictions, New Questions as Car Flaws Raise Doubts

Zachary Stevens' 2007 Saturn
Zachary Stevens' 2007 Saturn after crashing head-on into a pickup truck. Source: Josh Davis Law Firm via Bloomberg

Lakisha Ward-Green spent three months in jail after she lost control of her Chevrolet Cobalt, killing her teenage passenger.

Last week, a Pennsylvania judge, citing “newly discovered evidence” erased her guilty plea. The new evidence: the February 2014 recall by General Motors Co. of 2.6 million cars for defective ignition switches.

Ward-Green, now 25, is part of a small but growing group of people caught in a Kafkaesque legal web stemming from the safety scandals that have rocked GM and other automakers. Often blamed for unexplained accidents and sometimes charged with serious crimes, they can wait years before learning the role played by undisclosed defects.

With a record 64 million vehicles recalled in the U.S. last year, many of them after being on the road for a decade or more, experts expect an increasing number of proceedings over wrongful convictions to emerge. An examination of court filings has identified at least four such challenges in the case of GM’s recall and one in the case of Toyota.

“When defendants claimed their cars shut off or sped up all by themselves, the claims seemed too far out to create a doubt that was reasonable. Now we know better,” said University of Michigan law professor Erik Gordon.

In the case of GM’s defective ignition switch, the company knew of the problem for about a decade before it issued a public notice.

“Just about everyone who is in jail in a case where there wasn’t clear evidence of driving under the influence or another wrongful act will try to get out using the ‘ignition switch made me do it’ defense,” Gordon said in an e-mail.

Mother’s Advice

In the case of Ward-Green, she was giving 16-year-old friend Robert Chambers a lift home from school in September 2010 when her car’s ignition suddenly went into the accessory position, cutting off power to the steering and brakes, according to her lawyers. Consistent with ignition switch defects, the air bags didn’t deploy. Chambers died instantly.

“I don’t know how fast I was going but I wasn’t speeding” when the crash happened, she said in an interview, responding to police accusations she had been going too fast. “I was just going down the street. The brakes didn’t work. Nothing worked.”

On the advice of her mother, Ward-Green initially pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and reckless driving and served three months of a one-to-two year sentence. When she got out, she struggled to find a job.

GM Letter

Following the recalls, she submitted a claim to a fund GM created to compensate victims of accidents related to the flaw and settled for a sum she said she can’t disclose. In May, GM sent her lawyer, Robert Hilliard, a letter that the “recall condition may have caused or contributed to the frontal airbag non-deployment in the accident.” GM said it couldn’t tell whether the defect caused her to lose control.

Her ordeal is far from over. While vacating her guilty plea, last week’s court decision didn’t determine where fault lay. Prosecutors have appealed the ruling while her lawyer said he will ask the judge for a finding of “actual innocence.”

Hilliard, who also represents Candice Anderson, a driver whose 2004 negligent homicide plea in the death of her fiancé was reversed last year after the accident was linked to a defect in her Saturn Ion, expects to see more such “wrongly convicted” motorists come forward. “I doubt we will ever know the number or be able to bring justice to all of those folks,” he said.

Convicted, Jailed

Like Ward-Green, Daniel Perkins was charged, convicted and jailed long before GM issued its first ignition switch recalls in 2014.

Perkins, then 18, was driving a 2006 Cobalt in Camillus, New York, in May 2006 when he lost control and went off the road. The car rolled over, injuring him and killing his best friend, Joseph Doerfler, also 18. The air bags didn’t deploy.

Perkins pleaded guilty to negligent homicide and was jailed for six months. He has since accepted an undisclosed settlement from the GM fund, as has Doerfler’s family, according to his lawyer, Sidney Cominsky.

Perkins spent “nine years in purgatory,” Cominsky said, and now plans to ask GM for help in overturning the conviction.

Cominsky said GM’s settlement brought some peace of mind to his client. “I wish I could say he jumped for joy when he heard,” Cominsky said. “He just sat there teary-eyed and said, ‘I knew it wasn’t my fault.’”

Prosecutors’ Responsibility

GM, which expects to pay no more than $625 million from the fund, doesn’t comment on these cases as a general rule, spokesman Jim Cain said in a statement. “It is the responsibility of prosecutors, courts and the criminal-justice system to determine if charges are appropriate against individuals based on their conduct in a particular situation,” he said.

The company will “routinely provide information about their performance to investigators, if they request it and we have it in our possession,” he said.

In at least one case, charges were filed even after the recall had been made public, leading to accusations that prosecutors weren’t digging hard enough in search of explanations for these accidents.

Zachary Stevens, then 19, was driving his mother’s 2007 Saturn to Bible study outside Houston when the car veered onto the shoulder, shot back across the highway and struck a pickup head-on, killing the driver.

Manslaughter Charge

Stevens, who suffered a brain injury in the 2011 crash that left him without a memory of it, was arrested at work in May 2014 and charged with manslaughter. Accused of “intentionally driving” in a reckless manner and causing the death of the pickup driver, Mariano Landaverde, a 40-year-old father of five, Stevens faced a possible 20 years in prison.

He spent the next eight months in and out of court “never knowing what was going to happen,” he recalls.

The torment dragged on until a private investigator hired by his lawyer, Brent Mayr, linked the crash to the GM ignition switch defect. The charge was dropped in December. By then, his family had spent $70,000 on legal and investigator fees.

The GM defect headlines in 2014 didn’t stop police from arresting Stevens, said Mayr, a former assistant district attorney in Texas. “They charged him right after the first recalls,” he said, and made no effort to look at a possible connection.

Stevens, along with the family of the pickup driver, sued GM in January. The Landaverdes settled their claim on confidential terms, said Josh Davis, a lawyer who represents both plaintiffs.

The GM fund offered Stevens $70,000, precisely what he had spent on his criminal-defense lawyer and the investigator.

“We turned it down,” Stevens said.

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