The Kern County sheriff’s deputy charged with two counts of felony vehicular manslaughter had previously been reprimanded by the sheriff’s department in connection with his driving and warned that unsafe driving jeopardized not only his life but the lives of the citizens he’d sworn to protect, prosecutors said.
The importance and relevance of that information — made public for the first time during a court hearing Thursday morning — was argued about between prosecutors and defense attorneys before the judge ultimately allowed it as admissible evidence solely for the purposes of the hearing.
Judge Skip Staley ruled there was probable cause to hold Deputy John Swearengin over for trial following more than three hours of testimony by California Highway Patrol officers who investigated the Dec. 16, 2011 crash. Among their testimony was that Swearengin at times was driving more than 35 mph over the speed limit, didn’t activate his overhead lights or siren, and was speeding through an area he knew from experience was frequently crossed by pedestrians.
Photographs of the two victims lying in the street were shown to one of the officers, and also to the defense attorneys. Swearengin got a glimpse of the photos and immediately bowed his head and squeezed his eyes shut, and soon after wiped at his eyes.
The victims had been pushing a motorcycle south on Norris Road near Diane Drive when they were hit that evening, CHP reports said.
Prosecutor Michael J. Yraceburn said the warning and reprimand Swearengin received in September 2011 for scratching a guardrail showed the deputy was aware of the dangers of unsafe driving and was grossly negligent when he drove at speeds in excess of 80 mph on Norris Road before striking and killing Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley. Yraceburn said afterward he would not discuss the evidence of the case, but he said there were no surprises in Thursday’s hearing and the proceedings went as he expected.
Defense attorney David A. Torres argued against admitting the reprimand into evidence because it wasn’t relevant to the case against Swearengin. He said Swearengin’s previous infraction involved scratching a patrol vehicle, and he completed a safe driving course as required.
Similar instances have happened with numerous deputies, and they all receive a stern letter, said defense co-counsel William J. Hadden. Such instances don’t come close to being relevant in a situation where multiple people were killed, he said.
Staley, however, said in his ruling that he found the letter Swearengin received relevant to the present case, much as in someone charged with DUI would be warned that if they drink and drive their actions could result in death or serious injury.
Torres said the reprimand’s relevance will be argued again at trial, as will some of the findings of the CHP’s Fresno-based Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team, which conducted the crash investigation. He said prosecutors called some of the their expert witnesses Thursday, but he and Hadden have experts of their own.
“It’s going to be a battle of the experts,” Torres said.
In addition to criminal proceedings, a civil lawsuit has been filed against Swearengin on behalf of the Hiler and Jolley families alleging 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. Attorneys David Cohn and Thomas Brill, representing the Hiler and Jolley families, respectively, attended the preliminary hearing, as did family of both victims and Swearengin.
Hadden didn’t downplay the enormity of the crash, but said he believes his client will be vindicated.
“This is a horrible tragedy, but it’s an accident,” Hadden said.