On February 10, 2012, Florida Highway Patrolman (FHP) Detrick McClellan was responding to a call about someone throwing rocks from an overpass. He was accelerating without emergency lights on a two-lane road in rural Gadsden County, Florida, west of Tallahassee. He topped 102-mph in his Crown Victoria squad car, and made a 32-mph curve without slowing. McClellan reached the curve, veered off the road, and swerved into the other lane, smashing a Mitsubishi Galant, killing one woman, injuring another, and causing a 12-year-old girl to be hurled from the vehicle through the windshield.
Michelle Campbell, 51, died of injuries hours after the accident. She was returning home from Quincy, Florida after picking up her 12-year-old granddaughter from school. Campbell’s niece, also in the car, suffered serious injuries.
FHP Corporal C. Brooks Yarborough investigated the accident and held McClellan responsible. McClellan was cited with three traffic violations: careless driving, speeding, and failure to use his emergency lights. All are non-criminal traffic infractions punishable by fines. Prosecutors determined that McClellan’s driving did not rise to the level of vehicular homicide, and they refused to file criminal charges.
“He responded to [the call] rapidly because that’s a dangerous thing, rocks hitting cars,” Willie Meggs, state attorney for the circuit that includes Gadsden County, said in an interview with the Sun Sentinel. “We made the conclusion that there was a life lost, but he was trying to save a life.” (Sun Sentinel)
OK, fair enough. We’re understanding with this kind of thing, right? I mean … police officers are our heroes, the ones we can count on to protect us. We understand that they are rushing and struggling with an enormous amount of job-related stress, and every day putting their own lives at risk to perform their duties. It’s horrifying, it’s tragic, but unfortunately accidents occur and almost no one intends for these things to happen. So we may have been inclined to go easy on Mr. McClellan … before we saw what transpired in the courtroom when he reported for a hearing about his citations and the accident.
On November 5, 2012, McClellan was scheduled to appear before Gadsden County Judge Kathy Garner. Two hours before court, Judge Garner’s assistant informed her that the investigating officer, Corporal Yarbrough, had notified his supervisor, Sgt. Aaron Stephens, that he had a “medical emergency” and would be unable to attend the hearing. Stephens didn’t send someone else or request rescheduling of the hearing.
Seven troopers were in the courtroom with McClellan, including Corporal Michael Cross. The judge asked if any of them were able to represent FHP against McClellan and they all claimed that they could not. When Judge Garner was distracted with paperwork, McClellan stood with his attorney, Stephen Webster, who turned to Cross and asked him if he would agree to a dismissal of the citations, to which Cross replied:
“Why not? I’m easy to please.”
When the judge looked up, she asked “So y’all want it dismissed?”
Webster replied, “Nobody here objects.”
The judge appeared to be stunned, but asked for clarity. “There’s no objection? C’mon, y’all Candid Cameraing me?”
Webster himself seemed surprised that it looked like dismissal was going to be a real possibility. “If the agency felt this strongly about these citations, they certainly would have had someone here.”
There was a brief exchange and Judge Garner agreed to drop charges.
“Hearing no objection, or no one’s here, I will go on and dismiss the citations,” Garner said. (Sun Sentinel)
Pretty bad, eh? How much worse does it make it, for all of them, that this entire exchange was recorded and the recording has been released?
Michelle Campbell’s family were never notified of the hearing and are shocked at the outcome. They viewed a recording of the hearing later.
“If the FHP allows it to stand, what they’re saying is the law does not apply to us, even if we kill people,” said Dennis Kenney, professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former Florida police officer. (Sun Sentinel)
Detrick McClellan walked away with no consequences. He didn’t even attempt to show remorse, nor did the troopers or the judge. The other troopers were laughing as they shook McClellan’s hand. When questioned about it later, they claimed that they were simply happy to see McClellan receive good news.
“It was appalling and it hurt because I feel like they were cheering, rooting him on, for a death he caused,” said Campbell’s daughter, Annekquah Knight. “They knew he was wrong. I think it’s just because he was a trooper, and they look out for each other.” (Sun Sentinel)
(I think so, too)
Campbell’s granddaughter has had surgery and has permanent scars as a result of the accident. The child’s father, Rasheik Campbell said that his daughter “doesn’t sleep well. It’s been extremely hard for my family.”
Neither Judge Garner nor McClellan could be reached for comment.
As for McClellan, he expressed regret over the accident but nevertheless had planned to fight the charges. Why? Because FHP failed to maintain his vehicle, McClellan claims. He insists that the check engine light came on as he was rounding the curve, distracting him.
FHP is still trying to sort out what happened in the courtroom.
“We really can’t speculate,” said Capt. Nancy Rasmussen, spokeswoman for the highway patrol. “Hopefully, through those investigations we’ll find out.”
Because it was recorded, there was, of course, no question of misunderstanding as to what was said during the entire exchange. McClellan was fired last October because of his reckless behavior; an FHP commander, Major Timothy Ashley, was fired on November 7; and on February 15 Sergeant Aaron Stephens was recommended for demotion. He plans to appeal. He is, after all, above the law. Yarbrough has been exonerated because an FHP investigation proved that he had a legitimate reason for missing the hearing.
View the shocking video:
I am an unapologetic member of the Christian Left, and have spent a lot of time working with “the least of these” and disadvantaged and oppressed populations. I’m passionate about their struggles. To stay on top of topics I discuss, subscribe to my public updates on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, or connect with me via LinkedIn. I also have a grossly neglected blog. Find me somewhere and let’s discuss stuff.