Is Chase Suspect Responsible for Copter Crash Deaths?

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

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."

Larry Debus, a defense lawyer in Phoenix, agrees with that analysis. He says the language of the felony murder statute would rule out charges in this case. "They've got to come up with a theory that these four deaths in the helicopter were in the course of his fleeing from a police officer and in furtherance of that offense. During the course of his flight, a death occurred. Did a death occur during the course of that crime or did it occur because of pilot error?"

Debus, who has defended several suspects who've been charged under the statute, claims that the larger problem is an overreliance on car chases by the police. He's successfully sued police departments in Arizona to restrict the practice, including one case in which he claims sheriffs were chasing the wrong guy.

Across the nation, police departments have curbed or restricted the practice, due to an increase in bystander fatalities from 1993 to 2002, according to the National Highway Transportation Administration. In that year, almost 400 people died during police chases across the country. In 2005, that number had dropped to 357.

"A lot of departments are going to restrictive policies," says Geoffrey Alpert, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina, who consults police departments on their policy pursuits. "In Miami, they went from 500 chases a year to 40. There have been a few cases where departments reverted back -- in Tampa, the police chief got tired of people fleeing in stolen cars so they allow police to chase them."

Alpert says the helicopter crash in Phoenix is an unusual case and the deaths are really unrelated to the car chase. "It really has nothing to do with the pursuit and everything to do with the zeal of the media," he says. "It could have been anything going on on the ground that attracts the news media."

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