Attorneys argue need for inquest
By Kim Smith
LAS VEGAS SUN
One lawyer’s attempt to get a coroner’s inquest in last month’s accident that killed six teens on Interstate 15 ended Thursday and another’s was delayed.
District Judge Mark Gibbons told attorneys John Watkins and Marty Keach that the proper way to argue for an inquest in the March 19 accident is to file a petition in civil court.
Watkins represents Jessica Williams, the 21-year-old Littlefield, Ariz., woman accused of killing the teens as they picked up trash along I-15. Prosecutors contend Watkins fell asleep at the wheel because she was under the influence of marijuana and the hallucinogenic drug Ecstacy.
Keach represents the families of two of the victims.
The attorneys want an inquest to be held to determine if Clark County or Silver State Disposal should be held criminally responsible for the accident. The teens, who were on probation at the time of their deaths, were picking up trash to work off their fines.
The two attorneys and Chief Deputy District Attorney Gary Booker argued about the matter in front of a standing-room-only crowd of victims’ families and Williams’ supporters, who wore pink ribbons. Even the jury boxes were filled.
Because the proper venue to argue for the motion is in civil court, Watkins can’t continue in the attempt to get an inquest. However, Keach said he and attorney Robert Murdock intend to file the petition by the end of next week.
Despite hearing arguments from Keach, Watkins and Chief Deputy District Attorney Gary Booker, Gibbons said he would not rule on the merits of the motion.
Watkins told Gibbons that after visiting the scene of the accident it became obvious to him that the children should not have been out there that day. Those that died had “no means of escape.”
Although Clark County is responsible for placing the children in a precarious position, Watkins alleged the district attorney’s office doesn’t want to pursue another branch of the government.
Nor, Watkins said, do they want to “uncloud the cloudiness of the current situation.”
If a coroner’s inquest resulted in a finding that Clark County or Silver State were criminally negligent, that would mitigate Williams’ involvement in the accident, Watkins said.
Silver State partially funded the trash-pickup program. Officials have said the now-suspended program was aimed at removing trash that might have blown off Silver State trucks on their way to the Apex Landfill.
Keach stressed that he believes Williams is responsible for the accident, but he wants to ensure that all of those responsible are held accountable.
In the case of a bank robbery, prosecutors pursue not only the gunman, but the getaway driver and the mastermind, Keach said.
A coroner’s inquest is merely a fact-finding mission and the state should welcome it, Keach said.
Booker said even if a coroner’s inquest is held and it’s recommended that Clark County and, or Silver State be held accountable, it’s only a recommendation. The ultimate decision as to whether criminal charges are filed is still one that would be made by the district attorney’s office.
The district attorney’s office has already pursued charges against the person they think is responsible, Booker said.
The evidence clearly shows Williams was responsible for the crash, Booker said. Grand jury testimony indicates that Williams fell asleep because she had been up all night, her body “petered out” because of the Ecstacy and she smoked marijuana.
Williams drove 216 feet in the median before she began hitting the victims two-by-two — clearly she was asleep, Booker said.
Watkins wants to divert the attention away from Williams, Booker told Gibbons.
After ruling on the motion, Gibbons decided to postpone the issue of Williams’ bond.
Watkins is asking for her bond to be reduced from $5 million to $30,000.
Gibbons postponed the issue noting that prosecutors’ motion to oppose a bond reduction was filed late Wednesday, thus not giving him and Watkins enough time to prepare.
When Watkins noted many of Williams’ supporters flew in to testify on her behalf, Gibbons suggested they submit affidavits.
Watkins then said he was “appalled” at the tone taken by prosecutors in their motion opposing the bond reduction. He drew gasps from the crowds when he noted Deputy District Attorney Bruce Nelson compared Williams to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Nelson noted that he merely said that, like Williams, McVeigh had no history of being a flight risk and yet no one considered releasing him on bond.
Nelson and Watkins then began to exchange barbs, prompting Gibbons to say he isn’t going to decide the case based on their rhetoric, rather on the facts of the case.