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A Tennessee detective sergeant was recently found not guilty of reckless homicide. The jury deliberated for less than an hour before reaching its decision. Former-Sgt. Ronald Killings was acquitted of reckless homicide in the death of an 11-year-old pedestrian, Lakeisha White, he struck with an unmarked patrol car in July 2008.
The incident took place in Rutherford County, Tenn. It was such a firestorm in the local community that the judge arranged for a sequestered jury of nine women and three men from Chattanooga, Tenn.
Killings was responding to back up one of his officers, who was out with multiple subjects suspected in a home invasion offense. It was late in the evening and dark outside. En route, the officer asked for Killings to "step it up," and we all know what that means in the law enforcement community. Killings was near the incident and didn't activate his lights and sirens on his unmarked car. He said he feared spooking the group that his officer was out with putting him into more danger.
As Killings sped through a neighborhood the 11-year-old victim darted out in front of him and was struck by his car. She was pronounced dead a few hours later at the hospital. In an initial statement Killings indicated he was not watching his speed but he thought he was going around 45 mph in the 30 mph zone. The department downloaded the black box from his unmarked cruiser, which indicated he was most likely doing 62 mph when he struck Lakeisha.
Lakeisha was outside with her aunt and three other relatives when she was struck.
A factor brought up during the trial was a personal call Killings was on at the time of the collision. He was talking to another officer, who was off duty, regarding personal matters. He testified that he was using the "hands free" setting on his cell phone, and had both hands on the wheel at the time of collision.
He cried, but remained composed, as he described hitting Lakeisha. "My airbag exploded. I saw a little girl's face looking at me." The 11-year-old had been hurled onto his windshield and thrown 30 feet from the point of impact.
As I watched the trial, I was sure that Killings would be convicted. He didn't use his lights and sirens which means he didn't meet the definition of an "emergency vehicle" in Tennessee. The same holds true for officers in my state of Ohio. He was speeding 30 mph over the speed limit, through a neighborhood, all while talking on his personal cell phone. It didn't look good. Then Killing's attorneys called their first defense witness on Thursday and the outlook quickly changed.
Carolyn Smotherman was the only person to see the impact. This makes her a crucial witness for law enforcement officers investigating the collision. She was interviewed by investigators and her information was in the case file. However, she was never called by the prosecutor for grand jury or as a witness in the trial. This shocked me, and I began to wonder if this case had a political purpose due to the community uproar. Smotherman described seeing Lakeisha in a "sprinter's stance," as if she was going to race across the street in front of the car.
Smotherman saw Killings unmarked car strike Lakeisha and said, "It sounded as though her whole body broke." The prosecutor actually attacked her for having a "learning disability." The entire courtroom was upset with the prosecutor's attack of this independent witness. She had no pony in this show.
As a retired officer and academy instructor in Ohio, I thought it would be beneficial to watch the outcome of such a trial. Knowing that I'd responded in much the same way on many calls throughout my career made me repeat a phrase I used a lot: "By the Grace of God go I."
At anytime in America officers are responding to other officers in need of assistance. The easy answer is that we should always travel at the speed limit or always have our lights and sirens on, but anyone in this field knows it isn't that simple. We can't pull up to a bank robbery with lights on and sirens blaring. So, should we do the speed limit of 25 mph the last half mile of our response while armed gunmen our inside with our citizens? Of course not, but society doesn't understand these things unless we educate them on why we do what we do.
There's no bringing back Lakeisha White, and her family will never be the same. Killings has obviously been traumatized as well. When the verdict was read he had no look of relief on his face, just pain. There were no victors in this case. Killing's wife sat a few rows behind him sobbing into her hands, knowing finally that her husband wouldn't be facing the four years of prison carried by the charge. Killings had resigned out of respect to Sheriff Truman Jones after he was indicted by the Rutherford County Prosecutor's Office. Jones was in the audience to support his former sergeant.
The sheriff's office and Killings's PBA attorney, Terry Fann, argued that this case was a tragic accident, not a crime. The civil suit was already settled for just under $300,000, the state maximum for a suit against a government entity.
Cases like these must be used by the law enforcement community as learning opportunities. It's the best way to honor their sacrifices for society--to prevent similar tragedies. We must ensure we review such cases as Killing's with our new recruits. Through the police academies and FTO programs we need to instruct them on why we do what we do, so they can later articulate to others why they did what they did.
Officer Richard Neil retired after serving 17 years in Ohio law enforcement. He served in patrol, investigations, crime scene investigations, and juvenile crimes. He is an instructor in Ohio's Basic Peace Officer Training Academies in several topic areas including the legal block. Since his disability, he also volunteers as a Police Chaplain on a Critical Incident Stress Management Team that serves the tri-state area.