By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 13, 2008
After a night out drinking, Prince George's County police officer Mario Chavez was traveling at twice the speed limit last December when his cruiser struck a car that had turned left across his lane. The driver of that car, a 20-year-old University of Maryland student, was killed while his mother watched.
Now, after a year of investigation, county prosecutors say they have determined the penalty the officer will face: a speeding ticket.
The decision this week, on the anniversary of Brian Gray's death, has shocked his friends and family. They say evidence uncovered in a civil case against Chavez has left them feeling that the officer was treated leniently.
"A speeding ticket is an insult to the value of my son's life," Mary Gray said. "If they were looking for things for an indictment, they weren't looking very hard. This feels like it's being swept under the rug -- a coverup."
Mary Gray, who was behind her son in another car when the accident occurred, is frustrated that her son's blood alcohol level was checked -- it was zero -- but Chavez's was not. In a deposition for the civil case, the officer acknowledged drinking "three, four" beers the night before and said he had slept on a friend's couch. Records also showed a half-hour call from Chavez's phone to his wife's phone during the time he indicated under oath that he had been asleep, she said.
State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey offered little defense of the speeding ticket, saying he agrees with Gray's family that the penalty doesn't fit the crime. "They're right, they're absolutely right," he said yesterday.
Ivey said his office dedicated a lot of time to investigating Gray's death but ultimately found insufficient evidence that Chavez acted with gross negligence, a threshold that is met only when a driver knowingly engages in a combination of illegal activities, such as driving under the influence and driving erratically. Such negligence is required to successfully prosecute vehicular manslaughter.
"We have a lot of fatality cases where tickets are the only option for us," Ivey said. "I think it's wrong, and I think the law needs to change."
Ivey said he is working for a fourth consecutive year with state legislators to draft a bill that would allow prosecutors a "middle ground" to more easily prosecute drivers who cause substantial injury or death.
The prosecutor also said his recent failure to win a conviction of Scott Campbell, a county police officer who was charged with manslaughter in an eight-car pileup last year on the Beltway, factored into his decision not to present the Chavez case to a grand jury.
Chavez, who is working as a patrol officer in southern Prince George's, could not be reached for comment yesterday. His county-provided attorney, Shelley Johnson, did not return messages seeking comment.
An investigation by county police concluded in June that Chavez, 31, and Gray shared responsibility for the accident.
Mary Gray said she was summoned to Ivey's office Tuesday, the day before the anniversary of Brian Gray's death, to hear the news about Chavez's speeding ticket. It was written for 50 mph, or twice the posted speed limit on the Bowie road where her son made a left turn in front of the officer.
Gray said she is also troubled that potential evidence has never been analyzed. A black box recording device for the cruiser still sits in Detroit, where Ivey's office says software problems have prevented technicians from retrieving the record of Chavez's actions before the crash.
Maj. Andy Ellis, a county police spokesman, said officers who responded to the Dec. 10, 2007, crash followed state law in not testing Chavez's sobriety. Officers at the scene reported seeing no reason to think Chavez had been drinking. He said the police department will begin an internal investigation.
Gray said her lawyer has found that a page of nurse's notes about Chavez's condition when he arrived at Prince George's Hospital after the crash is missing.
An attorney not on the case, Terrell N. Roberts III of Riverdale, said that if Chavez had been asked whether he had been drinking and answered truthfully, a field sobriety test would have been given.
"If he had just been given a blood test, it would be different," Gray said. "It would have been some closure for me to know it was just an accident."
Staff writer Ruben Castaneda contributed to this report.