The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, March 15, 2016 6:53 pm

Witnesses to deadly crash seen as victims

Rebecca S. Green | The Journal Gazette

At nearly midnight March 28, 2014, Gary Friedrich drove northeast around the curve on Crescent Avenue as it runs along IPFW’s campus.

Coming up on his right was a Toyota driven by 17-year-old Haley Nellum. Friedrich’s vehicle and Nellum’s were parallel for much of the way past Coliseum Boulevard.

But as they neared the stoplight at St. Joe Road, Friedrich saw a blur out of the corner of his eye.

It made all the difference in the world. 

Milliseconds later, Nellum would be killed by a drunken driver in a luxury sports sedan, which hit speeds of about 100 mph as it slammed into her vehicle.

Friedrich and others at that intersection became unwitting witnesses to a crime. Over the course of a couple of weeks in September, many of those innocent and unsuspecting motorists found themselves called to the stand to testify in the case stemming from that crash.

And for many of them, according to what they said on the stand, the experience was horrific and traumatizing, making them victims of the crash in a unique way.

But the law doesn’t always recognize those physically undamaged by an event, whether it’s a crime or otherwise.

In this case, prosecutors took an unusual step of criminally charging the defendant in connection with the near-misses at the intersection.

Frequently, though, the reality of emotional injury to those who witness goes unnoticed. 

‘It was horrific’

On Sept. 24, an Allen Superior Court jury convicted 36-year-old Jeremy Washington of reckless homicide, operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated causing death, and operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated causing serious bodily injury. He faces between two and eight years in prison.

The jury acquitted him of three counts of criminal recklessness with a deadly weapon, charges that applied to the individuals who were waiting at that intersection, or driving through it. Those drivers were named victims in the case. 

One of those individuals was Roger Gilbert, an English teacher at Ivy Tech Community College Northeast. He and his now-wife were waiting for an arrow in the left-turn lane, facing east on Crescent Avenue. 

Gilbert testified that he heard a couple of loud noises and saw the crash.

"It was horrific," he told the jury. "I’ve never seen anything like it."

Gilbert told the jury he’d had training as an emergency medical technician. As Washington’s and Nellum’s vehicles came to a stop, after tumbling and sliding dozens of feet away from the spot of the crash, he jumped into action.

The force of the vehicle’s impact created such a large dust cloud that he was unable to see anything for a few seconds, he said. 

He told Washington, who was standing outside of his Infiniti sedan, to remain where he was. Gilbert then headed over to Nellum’s vehicle.

Using the words only someone with medical training would use, Gilbert told the jury he was unable to find a pulse on her neck and moved on to her feet, checking for what is called a pedal pulse. There wasn’t one there, either.

Gilbert went back to Washington’s vehicle and checked on his passenger, Clayton Delong. Delong ended up at an area hospital with serious injuries, including a concussion.

Brush with death

It was Friedrich’s story, though, that made one’s heart skip, the idea that he was less than a bumper’s width from likely death.

He told the jury when he sensed the blur out of the corner of his eye, he took his foot up off the gas and moved it toward the brake. In that split second, Nellum’s car moved into the intersection and directly into Washington’s path. 

"I don’t know how I didn’t hit the car," Friedrich said.

Debris and glass showered his car in what sounded to him like a small explosion. He took a second at the intersection, trying to calm his nerves. A little bit later, he pulled into the parking lot of the nearby Speedway gas station, unable to drive for a while. 

Friedrich, a delivery driver for Waiter On the Way, had to reduce his hours at work, he told the jury. He was unable to drive at night for quite some time.

He avoids that intersection.

Legal shortfall

Professor Jody Madiera teaches tort law, or injury law, at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law. She said the law falls short in failing to recognize the emotional harm of those in such situations. In most cases, the law requires a physical injury.

"It’s somewhat a fiction to say that those are the only kinds of people in distress," Madiera said. 

She was interested by the filing of the criminal recklessness charge in connection with the drivers at the intersection.

Such action by the Allen County Prosecutor’s Office recognizes the harm caused to those who were there, she said.

"It does recognize that those other than the immediate fatality are affected," she said. "It’s more realistic."

Often working with the families of murder victims, Madiera sees survivors’ guilt frequently, and the dangers it poses to those who carry it.

Society is often more willing to confer victim status on those who survive mass events, such as terrorism or shootings, rather than those who endure the more common and mundane, such as a traffic crash.

Even though the criminal charges were rejected by the jury, filing them offers a kind of validation to those who were there and could encourage them to get help, she said.

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