Saturday, June 21, 2008

Manslaughter for sheriff's deputy hitting bicyclists

California criminal defense attorneys report James "Tommy" Council, the Santa Clara sheriff's deputy whose patrol car smashed into a group of training cyclists in March, killing two of them and injuring a third, will face two misdemeanor charges, the district attorney's office announced Thursday.

The charges of vehicular manslaughter do not explain what happened on that Sunday morning in March when Council's cruiser crossed a double yellow line killing Matt Peterson, 29, of San Francisco, and Kristy Gough, 30, of Oakland.

Assistant District Attorney David Tomkins said the evidence did not support more serious felony charges, but Council could face two years in county jail if convicted.

"The more serious charge would have required him either knowingly ingesting some type of controlled substance or over-the-counter medication that would affect his ability to drive, or serious gross negligence like reckless driving," Tomkins said. "We took the evidence we had and looked at blood samples he provided and we eliminated those possibilities with drug screening and through witness statements."

The GPS device in his patrol car showed he was driving within the 30 mph speed limit, Tomkins said.

Witnesses at the scene said at the time they heard Council say after the crash that he had dozed off. "Falling asleep would be encompassed within the misdemeanor manslaughter charge," Tomkins said, declining to comment further on the investigation.

Council, who turned himself in Thursday afternoon and was released after posting $5,000 in bail, could not be reached for comment. Contacted at home, his father, Toby, also a Santa Clara County sheriff's deputy, declined to comment as well. An arraignment date has not yet been set.
He remains on paid administrative leave from the department, pending an internal investigation and resolution of his criminal case, said sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Don Morrissey.

Tomkins and Morrissey said Council wasn't treated differently than any other citizen involved in a similar accident.

The death has prompted efforts among the bicyclists' friends to work to make sure more cyclists are not killed on area roads.

"I hope that he has a fair process and if he's guilty of something, that he's proven guilty," said Peterson's close friend and cycling buddy Dave Parrish. "What's way more important is that these kinds of accidents not happen in the future."

The deputy was "just driving. A guy made a sloppy mistake and a couple of people pay with their lives."

Gough's death prompted her former triathlon coach Marc Evans to start Honor the Stop, a non-profit focused on creating safer roadways for motorists and cyclists. Like Parrish, he has thought less about who to blame, concentrating instead on positive change.

"It has focused me on this campaign of safety and community," said Evans, who already has plans to meet with the San Mateo County sheriff and the local captain of the California Highway Patrol to talk about roadway safety.

Neither Gough's mother, Karen, nor Peterson's family could not be reached for comment.

Tomkins said he spoke to both families before filing the charges and "obviously they're upset their loved ones are dead, but I think they understand the evidence available to us and the law that encompasses this conduct."

Mid-morning on Sunday, March 9, the 27-year-old Council was traveling in his sheriff's cruiser along a stretch of Stevens Canyon Road in Cupertino. After crossing a double-yellow line, his cruiser hit the bicyclists. Peterson, a San Francisco cyclist, died at the scene; Gough, an Olympic cycling hopeful from Oakland, died hours later at Stanford Hospital; and Christopher Knapp, 20, of Germany, suffered a broken arm and leg.

In an interview a week after the accident, the elder Council said his son, who remains on paid administrative leave and has gotten counseling, was suffering, too.

Told of his remarks, Karen Sue Clarkson, the mother of Kristy Gough, one of the cyclists who died, said she, too, felt for the Councils. More than two decades ago, the Councils were the parents standing in the hallway of a hospital, hearing a doctor telling them their daughter was dead. Ten-year-old Moira Council had been struck and killed by a car. "I have the greatest sympathy for anyone who loses a child - how can I not?" she said at the time. "But it's so hard to know how to feel. My heart is so broken."

"It was an accident, a horrible accident," the elder Council said in March. "It's like walking to church and getting hit by a meteor. Outta your control."

In April, a report by CHP investigators recommended that the district attorney's office file two misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charges against Council. While the CHP could have recommended no charges, the misdemeanors are on the lower end of the spectrum that Council could have faced.