By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 2008
A Fairfax County police officer who drove through a red light with her emergency lights on but not the siren was found not guilty of reckless driving yesterday in a February crash that killed a 33-year-old woman.
General District Judge Sarah L. Deneke, brought in from Stafford County after the Fairfax judges recused themselves, said prosecutors had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Amanda R. Perry had driven recklessly. Deneke reminded those in the crowded courtroom that the criminal trial was held to determine whether reckless driving had occurred, not to determine fault or liability in the crash that killed Ashley McIntosh.
"Taking the totality of the circumstances," Deneke said -- the traffic, the weather, Perry's actions and intentions -- "I don't find the evidence rises to a level that the driving was reckless."
McIntosh's family sat in shock, then wept. Perry was allowed to leave the courtroom through a side entrance used for sheriff's deputies and did not make a statement. She remains on restricted administrative duty.
Cindy Colasanto, McIntosh's mother, was prepared to testify about her daughter's life had Perry been convicted. McIntosh was a kindergarten teacher's assistant at Clermont Elementary School who was engaged. Colasanto, instead, read a statement prepared in the event of an acquittal.
"It's beyond any understanding I have," Colasanto said, "to think that an officer of the law, sworn to protect and defend us, is not held responsible for the irresponsible decision she made, responding to a call and resulting in the violent death of my daughter. Her misdeed has caused my family lifelong grief and a pain that we'll never forget."
As rain began falling at 5 p.m. Feb. 12, McIntosh was pulling out of the Mount Vernon Plaza shopping center on Route 1 when her Toyota Corolla collided with a cruiser driven by Perry, 23, who was headed to a call of a reported fight in progress.
Videotape shot by Perry's in-car camera was shown in court for the first time yesterday. Perry said she was trying to turn on her siren while also scanning the traffic ahead of her, as police general orders require, but she fumbled with the siren console and "it did not come on."
As Perry reached Fordson Road, the intersection before the crash site, the video indicates that she hit the brakes and turned on her emergency lights. As she headed toward Boswell Road, where Mount Vernon Plaza traffic enters Route 1, the traffic light was red, and Perry took her foot off the brake.
Perry said she was continuously scanning the intersection as she approached. "My perception was the intersection was clear," Perry said, "so I could proceed through." The light at Boswell Road was red for about five seconds before the crash, the tape shows.
For several seconds before the impact in the intersection, Perry did not hit her brakes or swerve. She said McIntosh's car "came out of nowhere." Crash experts for the prosecution and defense both said Perry was traveling between 38 and 44 mph when she hit the front passenger side of the Corolla. McIntosh was ejected from the car and rolled to the curb. She died the next day. Perry was not seriously hurt.
Perry's attorney, Edward J. Nuttall, argued that McIntosh caused the crash. Experts estimated her speed at 22 to 26 mph, and her car did not appear to be angled away as if making a turn.
"It's clear from the video," Nuttall told the judge, "Ms. McIntosh's vehicle is not taking a left-hand turn. . . . The way in which Ms. McIntosh's vehicle was driven was unforeseeable [to Perry] and therefore the reason that this impact occurred."
The videotape briefly shows the front end of McIntosh's car moving in front of the officer's, and then goes black, when the camera was apparently jolted.
Fairfax Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Robert D. McClain said McIntosh's driving didn't matter; her light was green. Perry's was red. Police are granted an exemption from traffic lights if their "speed is sufficiently reduced" to enable them to pass "with due regard to the safety of persons and property." The police also are required to have both their lights and siren on, the law states, "as may be reasonably necessary."
McClain noted, and the video shows, that a long line of cars in the left turn lane of Route 1 obstructed Perry's view of cars emerging from the shopping center and obscured Perry from their view. The driver behind McIntosh testified that she did not see the officer until just before the crash.
McClain said, "I can only surmise that [McIntosh] had no idea Officer Perry was coming either," because she couldn't see the officer or hear a siren.
Colasanto said she will push for legislation to require emergency vehicles to greatly slow down when entering intersections. She said police should be held "as accountable as any other citizen."