Teen driver charged with manslaughter in death of cyclist
Today's Oregonian reports the story of a teenage driver arrested and initially charged with Manslaughter in the Second Degree (Manslaughter 2) in the hit and run death of a bicyclist in Southeast Portland. In a small bike-friendly city such as Portland, such tragic cases often receive a great deal of media exposure early in the case. This media exposure often touches on subjects that would not necessarily be admissible in a trial of the accused, however. This type of exposure can have a negative impact on the accused's right to have his or her case decided by a fair and impartial jury.
Today's news article is a case in point. Not only is the article one-sided: Reporting only the version of the events as portrayed by the authorities; It goes on further to list a damning juvenile history of prior bad acts of the accused. For example, the story claims that the accused was arrested after he had "sped away" from the scene of the accident, and "ditched" his car. It then goes on to relate sordid and inflammatory details of the teenager's prior history with the juvenile justice system.
While the circumstances of the accident, and perhaps those surrounding the arrest of the accused would be admissible at trial, the teenager's prior juvenile records could not be presented to the jury.
The most serious current charge facing the accused is Manslaughter 2. Under Oregon law Manslaughter 2 is defined as unjustifiable and recklessly causing the death of another human being. To act recklessly under Oregon law is to be aware of a substantial and unjustified risk that a certain behavior may cause a particular result (in this case the death of another person), and to nonetheless engage in that behavior. Manslaughter 2 is a Measure 11 offense which carries a 75-month mandatory minimum prison sentence.
What gives rise to the charge of recklessness in any given case can vary widely; speeding, racing, driving under the influence of intoxicants, or otherwise engaging in inappropriate activities while driving can all give rise to allegations of recklessness. To prove the accused's awareness of the risks of engaging in such behavior, the government may be allowed by a judge to reveal certain very limited information concerning the past acts of the accused. However, the revelation of his entire juvenile history would never be allowed.
The prosecution might seek more leeway in introducing prior bad acts of the accused if they can successfully persuade a Grand Jury to elevate the Manslaughter 2 charge to Manslaughter 1. Manslaughter 1 requires not only that the accused act recklessly, but that he does so under "circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to the value of human life." Conviction of Manslaughter 1 carries a mandatory Measure 11 sentence of ten years imprisonment. Proof of the additional element of "extreme indifference" often involves arguments over the admissibility of additional prior acts and experiences of the accused.
The admissibility of such "prior bad act evidence" in vehicular homicide cases comprises an intricate and complicated body federal and state constitutional and statutory law. The admissibility of such evidence is strictly and narrowly confined and may be admissible only for limited purposes at trial. When facing vehicular homicide cases an experienced criminal defense attorney is critical.
The defense in such cases should begin with a careful and immediate survey of the public media exposure as it develops in these cases. Jury pools can be easily and subtly, or not so subtly, contaminated by such biased, lurid and one-sided coverage. Early intervention by qualified counsel can help limit the damage.