Our View

First Posted: 1/15/2009

Trial takes right turn
We found disappointing a trial that ended abruptly this week of a 20-year-old Raleigh man who had been charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter in a road accident that happened in 2001.
Disappointing that the case went to trial, because the defendant, Chris Petersen, wasn't involved in the accident, at least not directly. Testimony was offered that Petersen initiated a race that ended when a Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder wrecked and killed four of Petersen's friends.
Petersen was the driver of a Dodge Avenger that was involved in the road race, but did not wreck.
The trial ended after testimony by a passenger in the Avenger was challenged as possibly being tainted. After the passenger was arrested for selling drugs, he changed his original story and told police that Petersen initiated the race. That prompted suspicion that the story was fabricated to earn a lighter sentence.
Prosecutors decided not to risk a mistrial and offered Petersen the chance to plead guilty to four counts of misdemeanor death by vehicle and a count of willful racing, an offer he accepted. Petersen, once facing the possibility of a long prison term, was freed when a 75-day sentence was suspended. He does face probation, community service and some fines.
We're glad he walked out of court free. Petersen didn't deserve to go to prison.
There is no single statute that prosecutors could use to prosecute Petersen for involuntary manslaughter. Instead, they tried to prove three key elements that would add up to involuntary manslaughter - that Petersen broke laws governing the operation of a motor vehicle; that he demonstrated wanton disregard for the safety of others; and that his actions caused death.
Prosecutors, by taking Petersen to trial for manslaughter, almost succeeded in putting someone in prison for a teenage mistake - one that is common. The decision was also consistent with a disturbing societal trend that is often evident in the judicial system - that of misdirecting responsibility.
Those four young people died not because they were challenged to race, but because they accepted that challenge. Fate robbed them of an opportunity to learn from that mistake.
Hopefully, Petersen and the passengers in his car will take advantage of their second chance.

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