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The Case History of a Controversial LAPD Traffic Fatality Investigation : Family of Victim, Driver Critical of Police Procedure

June 01, 1986|DAVID JOHNSTON | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Police Officer John Hamilton surveyed the grisly scene: the lifeless body of 15-year-old Matthew Marshall, his mangled Peugeot bicycle and a Volkswagen Rabbit, its windshield smashed, a Coke can lodged in the headlight cavity.

Following standard LAPD procedure, the veteran traffic accident investigator diagramed what he saw that March night in 1985 on twisting Roscomare Road near Mulholland Drive in Bel-Air. He also took down the names of three witnesses who arrived after the crash.

The Volkswagen's driver, Scott Reuman, 35, of Bel-Air, had driven away from the scene, but returned before the police arrived. Reuman flunked a field sobriety test, and more than two hours after the crash his blood alcohol registered 30% above the level at which the law presumes intoxication.

It seemed like a clear-cut case when Hamilton took his report to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office, which routinely filed three charges against Reuman: vehicular manslaughter, a felony, based on Reuman crossing a double yellow line into Matthew's traffic lane, and two misdemeanor drunk-driving counts, based on the blood-alcohol test.

Case Allegedly Ruined

But crime scenes are not always as they appear. And what Hamilton didn't detect, according to the prosecution, ruined its vehicular manslaughter case against Reuman when he went on trial nearly a year later.

The defense produced two witnesses, not named in Hamilton's report, who testified that his diagram did not match what they had seen when they arrived.

Reuman testified that before the police got there he tried to revive the boy and in the process moved his body. Reuman also said he picked up Matthew's 10-speed bike and carried it to the edge of the road, right where Hamilton's diagram showed it.

Nothing in Hamilton's report or diagram indicates he asked whether evidence had been moved.

The jury saw police photographs of a tennis shoe, the bicycle and other items. But the pictures were all close-ups. Overall shots setting the scene, showing the relative location of each piece of evidence, were not taken.

Notes that Hamilton and Officer Phillip Jackson made before Hamilton prepared his report disappeared before the trial began. The prosecution said this often happens and that it raises doubts in jurors' minds about the validity of the police report.

Hamilton's diagram also did not indicate the location of glass shards from the Volkswagen headlight, which would tend to indicate the point of impact.

The public defender's office, which represented the disabled 35-year-old Bel-Air man, got a court order to hire an accident reconstruction expert at a cost of $3,279.

Engineer's Analysis

Engineer Jack T. Kerkhoff of Somis, Calif., produced an analysis of the physical evidence showing that Reuman was not at fault. Kerkhoff's reconstruction theory held that Matthew's bicycle must have crossed the double yellow line into Reuman's lane.

Lydia Delgadillo, the junior prosecutor trying the case, said the LAPD refused her initial request for an accident reconstruction expert who could buttress the prosecution contention that Reuman crossed the double yellow line into Matthew's lane of traffic.

Delgadillo then subpoenaed a California Highway Patrol officer. She told her superiors that this strategy prompted the LAPD to provide one of its accident reconstruction experts, Sgt. Harry Ryan.

Santa Monica Superior Court Judge Robert W. Thomas, who presided at the trial, said in an interview that Ryan "was not prepared" and his testimony was unpersuasive. (Ryan did not respond to a message requesting an interview.)

The basic question put to the jury on the vehicular manslaughter charge was simple enough:

Was Scott Reuman responsible for Matthew Marshall's death?

Jury Deadlocked

On the basis of the blood-alcohol test results, the jurors found Reuman guilty of misdemeanor drunk driving. But the jury deadlocked on the vehicular manslaughter charge, which rested on whether Reuman had crossed the double yellow line into Matthew's lane of traffic.

The dead boy's mother, Harlene Marshall, said she had written a letter to Hamilton's superiors praising how he comforted her and her husband, who has since died, on the night of the crash.

But, she said, as she sat through the trial and became convinced that Hamilton's investigation was inadequate, she grew furious.

(Requests by The Times for an interview with Hamilton were relayed to him by LAPD officials; he did not respond.)

Once the verdict was in, Marshall said, she began demanding an explanation of what had happened to what she had been told was a simple, routine case.

Her quest, which is continuing, also led her to become involved with Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. Today, she assumes the presidency of the Los Angeles chapter, succeeding Barbara Bloomberg, who founded the chapter five years ago.

Angry About Investigation

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