Diplomat pleads guilty in fatal traffic crash

Published Oct. 9, 1997|Updated Oct. 2, 2005

Gueorgui Makharadze, the Georgian Embassy official whose involvement in a fatal drunken-driving crash last winter sparked a furor over diplomatic immunity, pleaded guilty Wednesday to all charges in the death of 16-year-old Joviane Waltrick.

"I take full responsibility for what happened," Makharadze, 36, said calmly in D.C. Superior Court, pleading guilty to five felony charges, including involuntary manslaughter, on what was to have been the first day of his trial.

Moments later, however, Makharadze, who had been free on personal recognizance, appeared stunned as Judge Harold L. Cushenberry Jr. denied his request to remain free pending his sentencing and ordered him jailed.

Relieved by the outcome, relatives and friends of Joviane, who lived in Kensington, Md., wept and hugged one another, wearing T-shirts bearing the dead girl's picture.

"It's been worth the fight," Joviane's mother, Viviani Wagner, said later, referring to her public campaign to have Makharadze held accountable for her daughter's death. Six weeks after the Jan. 3 crash _ amid international news media attention and at the request of U.S. officials _ Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze took the unusual step of waiving Makharadze's diplomatic immunity.

"Justice for Joviane is served," Wagner declared Wednesday.

As part of a plea deal, the U.S. attorney's office had agreed not to contest Makharadze's request to remain free pending his sentencing, scheduled for Dec. 19.

But Cushenberry said Makharadze _ who was his embassy's second-highest official _ had shown "callous disregard for the safety of others" by drinking excessively and driving too fast on the night of Jan. 3, when his 1997 Ford Taurus plowed into a line of cars waiting at a stoplight in northwest Washington.

In a statement issued by his lawyers after the court proceeding, Makharadze expressed his "continued sorrow and condolences to Miss Waltrick's family."

"I deeply regret the pain I have caused in this country and in my beloved Georgia. . . . I want (Joviane's family) to know that I will bear the pain of having caused the death of Miss Waltrick for the rest of my life," he said in his statement.

Tedo Japaridze, the Georgian ambassador, said in a statement Wednesday that Makharadze's jailing before sentencing "seems extreme."

"He has not driven any automobile or been socializing," Japaridze said. "His activities have been attending weekly prayer breakfasts, meetings with his attorneys and daily helping with the embassy as best he could."

Defense lawyer E. Lawrence Barcella Jr. said Wednesday he would ask D.C. jail officials to hold Makharadze in protective custody, away from other prisoners who might seek to harm him.

"George should not become the poster child for all the pent-up aggression people have about diplomats and drunk driving," Barcella said.

The charges to which he pleaded guilty _ involuntary manslaughter and four counts of aggravated assault, for the four people injured in the crash _ carry possible prison terms totaling 70 years.

According to the State Department, Makharadze is one of two foreign diplomats known to have been involved in criminally violent deaths.

The other, Rudy Van Den Borre, a Belgian military sergeant with diplomatic immunity, is serving 25 years in a Florida prison for seducing and killing two men in 1989.

As part of Makharadze's plea deal, prosecutors have agreed not to request consecutive prison terms for the five charges and not to oppose Makharadze's eventual request to serve his sentence in a federal prison.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Katherine Winfree and Douglas F. Gansler said Makharadze had consumed a large amount of wine and a shot of liquor before driving at least 74 mph _ nearly three times the speed limit _ and ramming into a car stopped at a red light. That car was propelled into the air and landed on another car stopped at the light, killing Waltrick.

Makharadze was cut on his forehead.

Prosecutors said Makharadze had a blood-alcohol of 0.15 percent.

The legal limit for driving in the District is 0.1 percent.