The man accused of fleeing police and killing two children in a traffic accident on Saturday was in court just three days before the crash, accused of violating terms of his probation on a drug charge.
Eric Palmer, 19, was arrested twice this summer, on charges of driving without a license and urinating in public, records show. At a hearing Wednesday, D.C. Superior Court Judge Craig Iscoe permitted Palmer to remain free after warning that his probation would be revoked if other violations occurred.
Palmer's conduct was brought to the judge's attention by Virgil Oliver, who was monitoring him for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. In a report dated Aug. 25, Oliver said that Palmer's adjustment had been "marginal" and asked for a hearing to address "this urgent matter."
Oliver arrived late for the court hearing, and it concluded without his testimony. Prosecutors offered no input. The judge heard from Palmer's defense attorney, June Perrone, who said that he was meeting most of his requirements for release. She said he had completed community service, tested clean for drugs, paid $50 to a victims' fund and enrolled in high school.
Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, said that Oliver wanted to alert the court to Palmer's conduct but was not making any recommendation about whether to revoke probation. Sipes said that in general, probation would not be revoked under similar circumstances.
Palmer was put on probation in March after pleading guilty to a charge of possession of cocaine. Iscoe sentenced him to a 120-day jail term but suspended the time.
In charging papers filed yesterday, prosecutors said that Palmer was fleeing police and driving between 50 and 80 mph moments before his car struck and killed the two children in Northeast Washington on Saturday. Palmer was ordered held without bond yesterday on second-degree murder charges stemming from the noontime accident.
Police said they are doing a block-by-block reconstruction of events leading to the crash, which took place at Florida Avenue and 12th Street NE. Palmer allegedly ran a red light and killed two siblings, Christopher Suydan Jr., 7, and Octavia Suydan, 8. One of the children was thrown 140 feet, charging papers said.
Authorities are investigating whether police followed the department's pursuit policy. At issue is what happened during a 30-second period that began when Palmer allegedly fled from police making a drug bust a half-mile from the crash scene. There are conflicting accounts about whether police were chasing Palmer when he crashed into the children as they were crossing the street.
Evidence collected by investigators and witness statements, including those of the suspect, suggest that a police officer halted a pursuit about 15 to 20 seconds before the crash, police said. There were no skid marks from cruisers at the scene, they said, and no cruisers crashed at the intersection. If the officer was following Palmer closely, he would not have been able to stop in time, police said.
But police said the fast pace of events could complicate efforts to determine what role the officer's actions played in encouraging the driver to flee. They also said they are trying to find witnesses who have told reporters that police were trailing Palmer closely just before the crash.
Police cautioned that they had only begun their investigation. They have said that Palmer has supported an officer's contention that he was not chasing him. He told investigators that he did not see officers trailing him and that the brakes of his Honda Accord failed, police said. Palmer also told investigators that he was trying to avoid cars in the road because he could not slow down and that he did not see the children before hitting them, police said.
Police are planning to hire an independent contractor to inspect the brakes, but they said they do not believe they failed.
The charging papers provided no details about Palmer's version of events. Palmer, of the 1200 block of 19th Street NE, said nothing during his hearing yesterday in D.C. Superior Court.
His lawyer argued that the evidence was not strong enough to support a second-degree murder charge.
In court documents and interviews, police said they were conducting a drug operation about noon Saturday in the 600 block of Orleans Place NE, about seven blocks from the accident scene.
Undercover officers had purchased drugs from a man near Palmer, who was sitting in the driver's seat of a Honda Accord, police said.
As other officers swooped in to arrest the man, Palmer gunned the engine of the car and hurtled toward an officer on foot, barely missing him, police said.
Palmer then sped south on Sixth Street and nearly hit another police car, authorities said. He turned left on L Street NE and was trailed for a few blocks by an officer in a cruiser who had activated his sirens and lights, police said.
A supervisor at the scene gave an order over the radio for the officer to cease the chase, and the officer slowed down and turned off the sirens and lights, police said.
Police investigators have not pinpointed the spot where the officer stopped the chase but they believe it occurred before Palmer turned off L Street and onto Florida Avenue.
Palmer veered to avoid cars stopped at a red light, witnesses told police, according to charging documents. His Honda struck the two children, of Temple Hills, who were on an outing with their father.
Palmer then crashed the Honda into a Ford Thunderbird, slightly injuring its driver, a 17-year-old woman, police said. Palmer, not seriously hurt, jumped from the car, police said, and ran away.
Investigators said that pedestrians and drivers stopped at the light estimated that police arrived at the scene about 15 seconds later.
Bystanders pointed officers in the direction that Palmer ran, police said, suggesting that police were not close enough to even witness the crash. Officers arrested Palmer a short time later.
Those witnesses also said they did not notice any police following the Honda closely, investigators said.
Police said they have found a few people who said they witnessed a high-speed chase in the seconds before the collision.
However, investigators said those witnesses did not appear to have a clear vantage point. They said they were trying to find others with information on the case.
D.C. police policy allows officers to engage in chases only if they believe a suspect has just committed a violent felony or the pursuit might prevent harm to others.