Kern County sheriff’s Deputy John Swearengin stood by his attorneys Friday morning as they entered a not guilty plea on his behalf in connection with an Oildale crash that killed two pedestrians.
In his first court appearance since being charged Oct. 12 with two counts of felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, Swearengin confirmed his name for Judge John R. Brownlee and agreed to waive time until Dec. 14 for a pre-preliminary hearing. He quickly left the courtroom following his arraignment in Department 6 of Kern County Superior Court.
Swearengin, who is out of custody, is represented by Santa Monica attorney William J. Hadden and prominent local defense attorney David A. Torres. Torres declined to comment afterward, as did Supervising Deputy District Attorney Michael J. Yraceburn.
Family members of crash victims Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley, as well as the attorneys representing them in a civil case against Swearengin and the county of Kern, were part of a packed courtroom. Several family members of the victims declined to comment.
David Cohn, representing the Hiler family in a civil case over the deaths, said the family is relieved the first court hearing has occurred and “extremely pleased” that Yraceburn, who Cohn called one of the best attorneys in the Kern County District Attorney’s office, is prosecuting the case.
“They are now very confident that the District Attorney’s office is serious about prosecuting Swearengin and following through to wherever it leads,” Cohn said.
He said the family isn’t necessarily angry at the deputy, they just don’t understand why he was driving at such high speeds after residents have repeatedly complained about deputies speeding through the area. Cohn said the family wants to make sure something like this never happens again.
The family will meet with Yraceburn soon to discuss the case and how they’ve been impacted, Cohn said.
Thomas Brill, the attorney representing the Jolley family in the civil lawsuit, said they still are concerned about whether the case will be fully prosecuted, but they are glad it’s underway.
“It makes it real,” Brill said of the first court hearing finally occurring.
Brill said he and the family are looking forward to the preliminary hearing because more will be learned about what occurred that night.
Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said Swearengin remains on paid administrative leave. The sheriff said the case needs to run its course, and he said he couldn’t offer much other comment at this point.
Swearengin was driving his patrol car on Norris Road at 80.2 mph the evening of Dec. 16 without emergency lights or sirens on an eighth of a second before he struck Hiler and Jolley, according to reports from a months-long California Highway Patrol investigation. The two had been pushing a motorcycle south on Norris Road when they were hit.
The posted speed limit in that area is 45 mph. Deputies have said Swearengin was responding to a call of a stolen vehicle when the crash occurred.
The civil lawsuit against Swearengin says he acted recklessly and in conscious disregard of the public’s safety by driving at an excessive speed through an area known to have high pedestrian traffic. Hiler, 24, and Jolley, 26, were crossing in an area where they had every right to be, and the CHP’s investigation into the crash says the pedestrians don’t bear any blame for what happened.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Dec. 17.