Prosecutor defends homicide plea deal for Dan Ford

9:35 PM, May 14, 2013   |    comments
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A former Cocke County official remained in jail on Tuesday, just one day after he pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and driving under the influence.  The talk of the town was how the convicted man would be out of jail by Thursday after only being sentenced to two days behind bars.

The plea agreement for Dan Ford outraged coworkers and friends of victim Katelin Richardson.  Ford was driving drunk the night of July 12, 2011, when he crashed into Richardson on a rural Cocke County road.

Richardson was in Tennessee for a summer job working with a white water rafting company.  Ford hit and killed Richardson when she was riding bicycles with a coworker between Newport and Cosby.

Due to Ford's political history in Cocke County, the courts avoided a conflict of interests by bringing in special prosecutor Al Schmutzer from Sevier County to handle the case.

"Quite frankly, when I got into the case, I didn't think there was going to be any question it would be a vehicular homicide by intoxication," said Schmutzer.  "As Paul Harvey said, I did not know the rest of the story.  The fact is we had a weak case for homicide by intoxication, so we did a deal where he [Ford] pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide by recklessness."

Schmutzer defended his decision to avoid taking the case to trial.  Ford received two days in jail, must serve 800 hours of community service, loses his license for three years, and received five years supervised probation.

"The two days in jail, when you hear that you think 'well why just two days?'  Unfortunately, we did not have a sure-fire case and there were some things working in the defense's favor.  It would have been a real gamble to take the case to trial and then he might have avoided any conviction for homicide."

Schmutzer said Ford's defense had plenty of ammo because Richardson broke several bicycle laws the night of the crash.

"It's so sad, but this young lady was out on the highway without any lights on her vehicle on her bike.  She was not riding on the right side of the curb as the law calls for.  And it was dusky dark, the worst time in the world for people seeing anything.  A jury very easily could have decided the crash would have happened with or without alcohol because she was basically invisible."

The defense also had witnesses who were driving sober on the same road that evening to testify they narrowly avoided crashing into Richardson.

"One witness that was going to testify said she had driven up on these two girls just before the collision on the highway and almost ran into them.  She said she was going to call the police and wished she had now.  She was going to call the sheriff to report the fact they were out in the road and it was a dangerous situation.  They also were riding side-by-side instead of single-file so she [Richardson] was in the middle of the road instead of along the curb."

Schmutzer said he also felt like one of the key witnesses for the prosecution would also work in the defense's favor by virtue of her survival.

"The plain fact also is her friend was riding her bicycle on the curb as the law requires and she was unhurt."

Schmutzer said he will take any heat from the public for the plea deal because he believes it was the best outcome for the prosecution.

"I don't have any doubt that justice was served here.  I was a district attorney general for 32 years. I've been in this business now for 36 years. I know when you have a good case and when you have a bad case.  The bottom line is we had a very weak case on the vehicular homicide."

The parents of Katelin Richardson remained informed about the proceedings of the case via their attorney.  Schmutzer said the parents were in agreement with the plea deal to convicted Ford on vehicular homicide by recklessness.

Other Heated Plea Deals

This is not the first time Schmutzer has handled the prosecution of a high profile person and drawn fire from the public for supposedly letting the defendant off easy.

Schmutzer was widely criticized for his prosecution of former Knox County judge Richard Baumgartner on charges of official misconduct. Baumgartner was abusing painkillers and involved in illegal drug deals while still serving as a Knox County judge.  In that case Baumgartner pleaded guilty in exchange for Schmutzer not objecting to a sentence of judicial diversion.

The judicial diversion sentence allowed Baumgartner to keep his pension, although the former judge eventually lost his pension more than a year later when convicted in federal court.

"I took a lot of heat for the Baumgartner case.  But if we had taken that to trial, we would have had to sit on the evidence until the trial and have no power to remove him as a judge until then.  A trial could have taken a couple of years and the whole time Baumgartner still would have been able to stay on the bench and cause even more damage to other cases.  My top priority was to get him off the bench as soon as possible," said Schmutzer.

Several criminal cases have been appealed and some defendants have been granted new trials due to complications resulting from Baumgartner's illegal activities and the ability of other judges to perform the former judge's role of 13th juror.  That includes the current retrial of George Thomas in the murder, rape, and robberies of Channon Christian and Chris Newsom. 

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