On July 9, 2004, Metro police sergeant Kim Gooch hit MTSU student Micah Jones with her car as Jones crossed Division Street on foot at 1 a.m. Gooch, who a blood test indicated had a .16 percent blood alcohol level, wasn't arrested that night (even though she was driving and allegedly carrying a gun while intoxicated). In fact, she wasn't asked to perform field sobriety tests for an hour after the incident (and when she did she showed "numerous clues consistent with impairment," according to a police report). She was allowed to drink bottled water on the crash scene and didn't appear to be handcuffed or made to sit in a patrol car. And she was allowed to turn herself in on vehicular assault charges, rather than being arrested, a full five days later; her bond was set at a modest $10,000.
"Accidents are just what they are," Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas later said of the incident, according to a Tennessean report. "They're not intentional. Nobody intended to do what happened."
Compare that to the case of James Lee Fitzgerald, who last week pled guilty to a charge of vehicular homicide and a charge of aggravated assault in the highway death of Metro police Officer Christy Dedman. On July 19 of last year10 days after Gooch hit JonesFitzgerald struck Dedman's police cruiser with the tractor-trailer he was driving, killing her and seriously injuring a motorist she had stopped to help. Fitzgerald, a 26-year-old from Somerset, Ky., was sober at the time of the collision, and Dedman's cruiser was parked 3 feet and 1 inch into the left lane of traffic on Interstate 40, according to police testimony. After being treated at a local hospital, Fitzgerald was immediately charged with vehicular homicide and aggravated assault; his bond was set at an extraordinary $3 million, which would later be reduced to $150,000.
Right after the crash, police began publicly prosecuting the Fitzgerald case. "We have some witness statements that he was going 80 miles per hour," Serpas said, according to a news report. That same report quoted a police investigator who said that Fitzgerald never hit the brakes "before or after the impact." The department even issued a press release declaring that the trucker "is believed to have been driving erratically and in excess of 80 m.p.h." before he "slammed" into the police car.
But the truck's data recorder painted a slightly different picture. Fitzgerald's speed ranged from 65 to 71 m.p.h. in the seconds before impact. According to an analysis by WTVF-Channel 5, he let up on the gas well before the crash, tapped the brakes once before hitting the police vehicle and applied them steadily during and after the likely moment of impact. Prosecutors, meanwhile, say the data recorder demonstrates that Fitzgerald accelerated into the collision. The trucking company has claimed Fitzgerald's rig was equipped with a regulator that kept the truck from going faster than 70 m.p.h, although the district attorney's office says truckers know ways to thwart such speed governors. Assistant district attorney Kristen Shea says Fitzgerald had ample time to change lanes after being in a position to see Dedman's cruiser; he says he didn't see the car until it was too late. Was Fitzgerald driving recklessly? It would have made for lively discussion in the jury room.
But on Friday, he pled guilty anyway. After weeks of negotiations with the district attorney's officeand months spent sitting in a Metro jailFitzgerald accepted a plea agreement in which he took full responsibility for recklessly killing someone with a motor vehicle, and the D.A.'s office agreed to his immediate release with three years' probation.
His attorney, Patrick McNally, advised his client not to accept the offer, but he understands Fitzgerald's desire to get home. "I'm pleased that my client was able to leave the jail and go home," McNally tells the Scene. "But I'm certainly not satisfied that he had to plead to the charges in the indictment. At best, I think this was maybe a criminally negligent homicide. But I still would have liked to argue the case before a jury." McNally says the case would boil down to a question of whether the failure to keep a safe lookout constitutes vehicular homicide by recklessness. "It would have been a very interesting case."
The "time served" plea agreement seemed to suggest a prosecution that didn't feel confident in its case. But Shea disagrees. "The average vehicular homicide case receives between six months and one year in jail, and three years on probation," she says. "I wanted him to plead to the indictment. I wanted him to plead to what he had done. And in the end, that's what we got, and I am satisfied with that."
Kim Gooch, however, hasn't done any jail time yet, thanks to her manageable bond; her trial is set to begin July 25. In the weeks after her arrest, she resigned from the police department rather than face a disciplinary hearing. Her attorney is expected to argue that Jones, who registered a .1 percent blood alcohol level, was at fault in the car-pedestrian collision July 9.
To be sure, Gooch is innocent until proven guilty, just like James Fitzgerald wasat least in theory. But looking at the two cases side by side, it sure seems like being a cop strengthens the presumption of innocence while killing one may eliminate it.