Cobb police charge teen driver with mother's death

The minister who presided at Kimberly Nichols' funeral had a question for her husband: How did he feel toward his 16-year-old son, whose error behind the wheel cost his mother her life?

The boy was blameless, Michael Mosley replied. It could have happened to anyone. In fact, he confided, he wished -- seeing his son's guilt -- that he, himself, had been driving.

The funeral was Saturday. On Monday, Mosley learned that police had charged his son with a crime, and anguish turned to anger. “He's got to live with this the rest of his life," Mosley told Channel 2 Action News. "There's no reason to charge my son."

But when someone breaks the law, even a traffic law, and someone else dies as a result, should authorities simply look the other way? Or should the matter at least be referred to a prosecutor for review, to make sure justice is served?

That is the longstanding policy of Cobb County Police, the agency that responded to the wreck and filed the charges, a spokesman said Wednesday.

“Where do we differentiate? Where do you draw the line? In the matter of public opinion, there will always be people acting on gut emotion, and mine is no different than anybody's in the public," said Sgt. Dana Pierce. "But I’m proud of those investigators and the job that they did ... in investigating this case and levying charges in accordance with state law.”

Pierce said the boy -- whose name is being withheld because he is a juvenile -- was processed Wednesday morning at the Cobb County Youth Detention Center and was released to his father's care two hours later.

Homicide by vehicle in the second degree is a misdemeanor, which carries a maximum punishment of 12 months in jail and a $1,000 fine. The more serious vehicular homicide, a felony, is charged when the driver is found to have been intoxicated, speeding or to have fled the scene. Typically these cases are handled by a county solicitor, but because the boy is a juvenile, the case will be handled by the district attorney and, if it is tried at all, handled in juvenile court.

DA Pat Head was out of town Wednesday, but said through an assistant that he has not yet reviewed the case.

Public opinion, as measured through blogs and comments on news websites, was running strongly in favor of mercy Wednesday.

"My heart breaks for them. I hope they are able to get everything behind them soon, and begin the healing process," read one comment on a forum, striking themes reiterated by many others.

The wreck occurred April 13 as the teen and his mother were headed to an orthodontist appointment in the family's 2002 Volkswagen Cabriolet. According to police, they were traveling eastbound on Dallas Highway, waiting to turn left onto Old Hamilton Road.

The teen told police that his view of oncoming traffic was blocked by a large truck in the westbound lane, which was also trying to turn left. As the teen made the left turn, the passenger side of his car was struck by a 1999 Mustang driven by Karen Flurry of Dallas, who was injured in the wreck. The car was then struck from behind by a Mazda, driven by 19-year-old Joseph Kirkland of Powder Springs, who was unharmed.

The boy reportedly told authorities that his mother told him it was safe to turn.

“It [the light] was green," Mosley told Channel 2. "There was a box truck on the other side turning also. They eased up. They both looked. She told him to go. He looked. They went."

Todd Hayes, a former Cobb County assistant solicitor who is now with the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council, said vehicular homicide cases often have two sets of victims: "the family who are suffering from the loss of a family member ... [and] someone who has to live with the fact that they killed somebody. That is equally traumatic."

In cases such as this one, one family bears both traumas.

Traffic attorney Larry Kohn said a number of factors complicate the case, including that the driver is a juvenile, that a third party was injured, and that the person who died is related to the driver.

Kohn said that even if the district attorney decides to pursue the charges, the focus in juvenile court will be on how best to rehabilitate the teen driver, and what that even means.

"The D.A. must ask, ‘What is it we hope to accomplish here?'" he said, adding that the boy is unlikely to face jail time, but may lose his driver's license for a time or be required to undergo counseling. "For the rest of his life the kid has to carry this with him, not just that he killed someone else, but that he killed his mother. What greater penalty could there be?"

Kohn said the district attorney will likely consult with the boy's father, Mosley, to determine an appropriate course of action.

"Usually the district attorney would consult with the victim’s family to come to a suitable recommendation that everybody can live with," he said.