Friday, April 29, 2011

Trooper strikes plea bargain in fatal crash

Posted By on Fri, Apr 29, 2011 at 5:01 PM

Arkansas state trooper Andrew Rhew struck a plea bargain this week with Special Prosecutor Will Feland over the death of a motorist killed in a Mississippi County wreck when Rhew was responding to a call in Osceola. Rhew was driving 103 miles an hour, according to the "black box" that records speeds in his cruiser, without siren or blue lights flashing. The warnings are required by law of a police vehicle traveling over the speed limit (45 mph where the accident occurred.)

Rhew entered a no contest plea to a Class A misdemeanor, negligent homicide. Sentencing was suspended for a year, which means no penalty was imposed. He could appear a year from now and, as a first offender, have his record expunged.

The deal was signed Thursday by Judge Cindy Thyer. Rhew did not have to appear before the judge.

Rhew had been charged with felony manslaughter in the death of Vickie Lynn Freemyer, 52, of Blytheville. She was killed when Rhew's car collided with hers on state Highway 77 in Manila in 2009. Freemyer, a school teacher, had stopped at a Sonic en route to visit her father in a hospital. She'd stopped, or perhaps only slowed at the highway intersection and was proceeding at less than 10 miles an hour according to her vehicle's recording device, when she was slammed by Rhew's cruiser. Police reports say he was responding to a report of a man with an outstanding felony warrant at a driver's license center at Osceola, some 25 miles away. Why Rhew had to respond, rather than an Osceola policeman or local sheriff's deputy who would have been closer, is unclear.

Bobby Coleman of Blytheville, who represents Freemyer’s four daughters, said prosecutors informed the family after the order was signed, which Prosecutor Feland disputes. Coleman said the family didn’t approve of the deal. “They are disappointed a jury wasn’t given the opportunity to make a decision,” Coleman said. Feland again disputed that. He said he'd spoken continuously with family members about hoping to achieve a negligent homicide plea from the defendant. He said an adult daughter with whom he'd spoken throughout the process had told him last night she understood the decision, after he'd given her a detailed explanation.

"It was a tough case," Feland said. He said the defense would have produced experts who'd contest the speed Rhew was driving and offer testimony about how Freemyer had contributed to the cause of the wreck, though the law says her negligence, if any, couldn't be used to determine Rhew's guilt or innocence.

Feland said the minute Rhew's attorney, Bill Bristow of Jonesboro, agreed to a plea Thursday morning, about 10 days before trial, he drove to Marion in Crittenden County to get the judge to sign the order and he asked an assistant, H.G. Foster, to immediately inform the family of the decision. Feland said it was "unprecedented" to get a negligent homicide judgment against a state trooper in such a circumstance.

"I thought it was an excellent resolution of this case," said Feland, who continued prosecuting the case as a special prosecutor at his own expense after leaving office in January. "Either side had a risk in going to trial. I felt like we got an acknowledgment this conduct was wrong. I did not think 12 men and women on evidence I had were going to convict him and give him more punishment than what I got."

Civil legal action is likely. Such claims often go before the state Claims Commission.

Rhew has been suspended with pay since former State Police Director Winford Phillips reinstated him under pressure from the State Police Commission following his firing. It will now be up to the new State Police director, JR Howard, to decide if the plea deal, in which Rhew admitted no wrongdoing, is sufficient ground for firing.

Bill Bristow, Rhew's attorney, declined to discuss the specifics other than to say that there were "facts on both sides." To a suggestion from the victim's side that Rhew got light treatment, he said, "All I'm going to say is that it was a reasonable compromise and a fair disposition."

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