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A Times Editorial

Time for the truth about fatal crash

The public may finally learn if the Polk County Sheriff's Office protected one of its own from prosecution in 2002 after a crash that left a teenage boy dead.

Last week, Gov. Charlie Crist ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate whether Deputy Scott Lawson and the Sheriff's Office committed "any illegal or improper" acts stemming from a crash that killed 16-year-old Miles White. The governor acted appropriately to break the wall of silence that has perverted justice in this case from the start.

For six years, the Polk Sheriff's Office has maintained that a drunken, 18-year-old Adam Jacoby caused a single-car crash that killed White, his passenger. But Lawson's accident report is so laced with lies, and the police investigation is so flawed, that only an independent review has any chance of determining the truth.

Lawson reported that he was told the Volkswagen Passat was stolen, and he never drove above 70 mph. But dispatch told him the car was not stolen. He also chased the car more than 15 miles at speeds that averaged more than 100 mph. The deputy yelled "Oops" into his radio just before the Passat crashed, striking a tree along a country road in the middle of the night and splitting in two.

The state needs to answer two key questions: Who caused the crash? Did the Sheriff's Office handle the investigation appropriately?

Three traffic accident engineers — two not connected to the case — told St. Petersburg Times staff writer Meg Laughlin that photographs of the crashed Volkswagen do not support the sheriff's version of events. Experts said photos and other evidence suggest that Lawson rear-ended the Passat, forcing it off the road.

Sheriff's investigators never questioned Lawson despite his status as a witness and the lies in his report. Lawson also had a fellow officer remove his unmarked car from the scene before investigators arrived. An undamaged vehicle, reportedly Lawson's, surfaced five days later. There is also a curious reference in the accident report that there was no damage to the "rear foam section" of the Passat's bumper. A parts catalog and auto dealers said the 2000 Passat had no rear foam section. Jacoby's defense found no such lining, and no photographs from the scene showing lining or undamaged foam were produced by the Sheriff's Office.

The Polk Sheriff's Office had a responsibility and indeed a vested interest in making a solid, public case that its deputy had no culpability in White's death. Lawson's arrest shortly after the accident on unrelated sexual battery and other charges should have made the agency even more sensitive about reassuring the public. But the Sheriff's Office has frustrated efforts to fully air the facts. An independent investigation by an outside law enforcement agency might produce the answers that have eluded the public for more than six years.

Time for the truth about fatal crash 01/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 24, 2009 3:31am]
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