A Times Editorial

Independent inquiry needed in fatal crash

Gov. Charlie Crist should appoint a special prosecutor to examine whether a Polk County sheriff's deputy caused a deadly crash in 2002 and the Sheriff's Office covered it up. Three traffic accident engineers — including two not connected to the case — told the St. Petersburg Times that photographs of the crashed Volkswagen Passat do not support the sheriff's version of how the tragedy happened. This case already was tainted by shoddy police work. Now the issue is whether compelling evidence was ignored or covered up.

For six years, the Sheriff's Office has maintained that a drunken, 18-year-old Adam Lucas Jacoby caused a single-car crash that killed his passenger, 16-year-old Miles White, on a dark country road. But Deputy Scott Lawson's accident report is laced with lies. Despite reporting the contrary, Lawson chased the car at speeds averaging 105 mph. He yelled "Oops" into his radio just before the Passat crashed. Despite the lies and though Lawson was a witness, sheriff's investigators never questioned him. They said higher-ups told them not to do so. Lawson also had a cop buddy remove his vehicle from the crash scene before investigators arrived.

Now Times staff writer Meg Laughlin has obtained photos of the wrecked Passat, including close-ups of the rear bumper. The photos, together with other evidence, prompted experts not connected to the case to conclude that Lawson hit the Passat. The markings on a rear shock absorber, scrapes on the bumper cover and crumpling on the car's rear driver side "are indisputable physical evidence that the Passat went off the road from being hit," said Miles Moss, a forensic engineer who has been analyzing accidents for 38 years.

Engineers said the photos, in conjunction with other evidence, such as Lawson's radio transmissions and the sheriff's diagram of the accident scene, provide strong physical evidence that Lawson rear-ended the driver's side of the Passat. Everything fit, they said, down to Lawson saying "Oops" on the radio before reporting the Passat had crashed. "The rear of the Passat was impacted," said Joseph Wattleworth, a professor emeritus of engineering at the University of Florida, where he directed the traffic engineering program for 27 years.

The Sheriff's Office has refused to cooperate in a full airing of the facts. Its 19-page official accident report also includes an apparent discrepancy. In that document, an investigator said there was no damage to the bumper's "rear foam section." Yet Jacoby's defense examined that bumper too and found no lining there. Nor was any lining or undamaged foam photographed by the Sheriff's Office at the scene. According to a Volkswagen parts catalog, and to two Tampa-area Volkswagen parts managers, the 2000 Pasat sedan did not have a rear foam section lining the bumper.

The Polk Sheriff's Office has mishandled this case from the start. (For complete articles on the case, go to www.tampabay.com and search "scott lawson.") But bad policing is one thing. There are serious questions here about whether a sheriff's deputy caused the crash that killed a teenager, and more questions about what top supervisors at the Sheriff's Office knew and how they responded. The answers will not found by the very agency whose actions raise considerable suspicion. The governor should appoint a special prosecutor to find the truth.

Independent inquiry needed in fatal crash 11/01/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 12:32pm]

    

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