A driver who left a trail of carnage through East Harlem, killing an innocent bystander, has been sentenced to as little as a year in jail after she escaped charges for taking a life.
Simone Walters was driving down Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard on the night of July 21, 2011, when she struck Robert Bond at W. 119th Street, a short distance from Bond’s home. According to reports, Walters “never slowed down,” hitting another vehicle several blocks away and coming to a stop when she crashed into a parked car at E. 104th Street and Madison Avenue, having lost a wheel from her 2000 BMW.
Bond, a father of four, suffered severe head injuries and died hours later at Harlem Hospital.
Initial reports said Walters was charged with DUI, leaving the scene and driving with a suspended license. According to an online database of court records, no charges were issued for speeding or reckless driving. Since Walters’ blood alcohol content was measured at .06 percent, if a DUI charge was indeed issued, it was downgraded to driving while ability impaired. DWAI applies when a driver has a BAC of .05 to .07 percent or displays other evidence of impairment, and is classified as a traffic infraction, or a misdemeanor for repeat offenses.
Under New York State law, in order to sustain a charge of vehicular homicide, prosecutors must be able to prove that impairment caused a motorist to operate a vehicle in a manner that caused death. Presumably, since Walters’ BAC was below the .08 standard for intoxication, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance did not charge her with vehicular homicide. Walters eventually pleaded guilty to a top charge of leaving the scene of an incident that resulted in death, a Class D felony, and in June was sentenced to one to three years in prison.
A motorist with a suspended license, who has been drinking, mortally wounds a man, pinballs through more than a dozen city blocks, crashing into other vehicles until a wheel falls off her car, and is not charged for killing. How can this be?
To begin with, the DUI charge may have been compromised by state laws that give drunk drivers time to sober up after a crash. Prosecutors have tried for years to streamline arduous warrant procedures that prevent police from obtaining blood alcohol evidence from suspected drunk drivers, who can delay the process for hours.
“What they said was once the officer chased her down and got her, they took her to Harlem Hospital. She needed some work done on her,” said Deborah Bond, Robert Bond’s widow, in a phone interview with Streetsblog. “So after two hours, taking her blood level, it was down already. So they didn’t charge her with drunken driving.”
“After two hours,” said Bond, “of course your blood level is going to be down.”
As usual in a pedestrian fatality case, there is also the question of what additional tools, if any, prosecutors may have had at their disposal.
Vehicular laws in New York State are notoriously Byzantine. Streetsblog consulted several attorneys for this story, all with estimable background in the field, and none could explain with absolute confidence the intricacies of state vehicular homicide and manslaughter statutes. Vance’s office does not discuss the particulars of vehicular crime cases, even closed ones, so the public is never informed of the factors that distinguish them — why one hit-and-run killer is prosecuted for her crime, while another is not.
We do know that if Vance feels hamstrung by current law, he isn’t letting on. While he has shown leadership on a number of issues in his two and a half years as district attorney, including domestic violence, DNA collection, and even the ivory trade, he has kept relatively quiet on matters of traffic justice. The same can be said of other top city prosecutors, whose names are as a rule conspicuously absent from efforts by state legislators to reform statutes that favor drivers who injure and kill. Said one attorney we spoke with, of the Vance team: “You’ve got an army of attorneys up there. Write some damn laws.”
“To be chased down from 119th Street to 110th Street — she was trying to get away,” said Bond. “When they caught her she was on three wheels, the windshield shattered, the car bloodied up, and you tell me in the courtroom that you thought you hit a ball? That’s exactly what Simone Walters said: she thought she had hit a ball.”
So impotent is the New York traffic justice system that what is remarkable about this case isn’t that Walters was not charged for killing, but that she received any jail time at all. One source told us that a one to three year prison term is “higher than the average” for leaving the scene, and speculated that the judge was incensed by the circumstances of the crash.
This is no consolation to the victim’s loved ones, who endured an emotional last day in court.
“My daughter, she was going after [Walters’] whole family,” said Bond. “Once I read my statement it all boiled up and she just took off after them. The officers, they accepted our apology because, I guess, just hearing what [Walters] had done.”
“I don’t think that she got the time she was supposed to have gotten. She didn’t pay for her wrong. She should never have been behind the wheel again, and I just can’t understand how they let this happen like that.”