Driver Waives Preliminary Hearing

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2007

The woman charged in the chaotic car crash at a street festival in Southeast Washington was back in court yesterday for what was supposed to be a hearing on whether she would remain in jail.

But Tonya Bell waived her right to the preliminary hearing in D.C. Superior Court and agreed to continue to be held without bond while the case proceeds.

Preliminary hearings typically are held within several days of felony arrests and give the defense a preview of the prosecution's evidence. Waiving one often signals that the defense is considering a plea agreement.

According to police, Bell has told investigators that she was high on crack the night of June 2, when she plowed her station wagon into crowds of people at Unifest, an annual street festival in Anacostia. Dozens of people were injured, some seriously, but no one was killed.

Bell, 30, was arrested at the scene and charged with one count of aggravated assault, covering just one of those struck. A grand jury probably will consider additional charges involving other victims.

Interviews and court records depict Bell as a troubled woman who has been arrested more than a dozen times, often on charges stemming from drug use, which began during a traumatic adolescence. When she was a teenager, the father of her first two children was shot and killed. A few years later, her mother and grandmother died in a fire at the family's home in Southeast Washington.

In recent years, Bell's situation had improved. She was having fewer brushes with the law, and at the time of the crash, she had a clerical job in the office of D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

After appearing in court June 4, Bell was due back last week, but that hearing was pushed back to yesterday, when she appeared before Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr.

Standing next to her attorney, Daisy Bygrave of the D.C. Public Defender Service, Bell told Dixon she was waiving her right to the preliminary hearing. Neither Bygrave nor the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alessio D. Evangelista, said why.

Daniel W. Quillin, a defense attorney who practices in Superior Court, assessed the move: "In a case like this, if you're going to seriously contest it at trial, you need to get a preliminary hearing to obtain as much discovery as possible."

The defense decision in the Bell case is a near-certain sign that the lawyers are considering a plea, said Quillin, who negotiated a plea for one of the defendants charged in the slaying of a British man last summer in Georgetown.

A status hearing for Bell is scheduled for Aug. 17, two weeks before the deadline for a grand jury to indict her.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company