Is Chase Suspect Responsible for Copter Crash Deaths?

Legal experts say it's unlikely that fleeing suspect would face murder charges.

ByABC News
February 11, 2009, 9:19 PM

July 30, 2007 — -- When the police pursue crime suspects in high-speed car chases, innocent bystanders are sometimes injured or killed.

In many states, the suspects face felony charges for victims harmed in the chaos of the chase.

But what about responsibility for the deaths of journalists covering the action? That's the question prosecutors in Arizona are considering after four journalists were killed when two television news helicopters collided in midair July 27 while covering a police pursuit in central Phoenix.

County prosecutors are awaiting reports from the police and the National Transportation Safety Board before they decide whether to file additional charges against Christopher J. Jones. He reportedly stole a utility truck, rammed it into a police cruiser, stole another vehicle, hit a few other police and civilian cars. Jones then locked himself in a house before he was subdued by dogs and gas after a two-hour standoff.

He was arrested on suspicion of auto theft, aggravated assault and unlawful flight. But the 23-year-old suspect could face harsher consequences due to the deaths of the news crews covering the action.

"I think he will be held responsible," Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris told reporters.

Arizona's first-degree murder statute is sufficiently broad to allow for charges to be brought if another person causes the death of any person "in the course of and in furtherance of the offense or immediate flight from the offense."

But several prominent lawyers, including the former county prosecutor, disagree with Harris' assessment.

"From what we know today, it would be very hard to bring felony murder charges," says former Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley. "I've talked to a number of judges about this case, and they all agree."

Romley compared the scenario to a driver listening to the car chase on the radio who loses control and crashes his car. "Can you bring charges for murder because the guy was inattentive? I don't see it, unless they were near the scene and had to take evasive action to avoid the chase."