News: Accidental Experts

Twitty case raises questions about sheriff's investigations

 
Jymi Bolden


Lt. Col. Ron Twitty (left) appeared, but didn't talk, at a rally of supporters.



Fairness was the reason Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas Streicher gave for asking the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office to investigate damage to Assistant Police Chief Ronald Twitty's city-owned car.

But avoiding the appearance of favoritism by sending the case to an outside agency might mean settling for a lower level of competence. Records show the sheriff's traffic unit is less qualified to do traffic accident reconstruction than the Cincinnati Police Department's Traffic Unit.

Even worse, the sheriff's traffic unit has been plagued by the same kind of alleged dishonesty that has made Twitty's case so controversial.

Technicalities matter
Twitty notified police July 4 he had found his vehicle damaged while parked overnight in front of his house. Officer Steven Edwards of the traffic unit was called to the scene. Edwards says he spent 3.5 days on the investigation but cannot comment on the Twitty case at this time.

Edwards' professional opinion is important because he is certified by the Accreditation Commission for Traffic Accident Reconstruction (ACTAR).

Traffic accident reconstruction is a technical field. Established by a grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, ACTAR developed guidelines for the standardization of training in traffic accident reconstruction. Minimum training and experience standards have been established, as well as an examination process to maintain a level of integrity, consistency and professionalism.

For a traffic accident reconstructionist, ACTAR certification is similar to a physician being board certified in the practice of a medical specialty.

Unfortunately, the words "expert" and "certified" seem to be loosely tossed around in the accident reconstruction field. There is a wide spectrum of people doing this type of work. Some are employed by police departments. Others work for consulting engineering firms.

The range of education also varies. In the private sector, many have master's or doctorate degrees in engineering. In the public sector, some possess only high school diplomas yet still refer to themselves as "experts" because they have participated in a two-week course dealing with traffic accidents.

The Cincinnati Police Department has 18 officers assigned to the traffic unit. Two officers, Edwards and Specialist Charles Beebe, have ACTAR certification.

Sheriff Simon Leis' traffic unit employs eight deputies. None are ACTAR certified. Sgt. Thomas Butler, the traffic unit supervisor, has a diploma from Elder High School and approximately 37 days of training in traffic accident reconstruction.

Steve Barnett, spokesman for the sheriff's department, referred to four of the eight in the traffic unit as "certified." But the ACTAR directory does not list any of the four. Asked about the discrepancy, Barnett said, " 'Certified' is merely a word I used, meaning those individuals have successfully completed all the required training and are qualified to do crash reconstruction."

Personnel records show the four deputies have participated in a varied number of days of training and received certificates for doing so. But that's not the equivalent of ACTAR certification.

"Accident reconstruction is like a lot of the other areas of forensic expertise," says Robert Andrews, president of the Greater Cincinnati Criminal Defense Attorneys Association. "Various approaches are subject to professional opinion, with many different schools of thought."

Andrews cites the case of a 16-year-old Anderson Township girl charged with aggravated vehicular homicide in January. The sheriff's traffic unit concluded the car was going 135 miles per hour when the crash occurred.

"I defy anyone to get a car going that fast on that particular road," Andrews says.

The teen-ager's attorney, James N. Perry, also disagreed with the report. He argued the teen was traveling at a speed closer to 70 miles per hour — about half the reported speed.

Ernest Westerberg was charged with vehicular homicide by the sheriff's office after a crash on Interstate 74 in August 2000. The accident reconstruction was so poorly done that prosecutors hired a private consultant to bolster the case, according to Hal Arenstein, Westerberg's attorney. Even so, the defendant was still acquitted.

Spray paint and pancakes
Deputy David Esswein is one of Leis' traffic unit investigators. In December 1995, Esswein damaged a cruiser by backing into a rock, according to personnel records at the sheriff's office. Instead of reporting the incident, he covered up the damage with a can of black spray paint, a supervisor said.

"I perceive Cpl. Esswein's spray painting of the damaged area as an attempt at deception," wrote Capt. Lawrence W. Nielsen.

Esswein received a two-day suspension without pay for conduct unbecoming a deputy sheriff.

Esswein has also been reprimanded for knowingly falsifying his detail cards. Twice in 1990 he claimed to be on patrol while he was actually in a Perkins restaurant. In one incident, he ignored a call about a theft in progress near the restaurant, personnel records show. These incidents also resulted in a two-day suspension, this time for "neglect of duty."

Leis has said his investigators invested 700 hours in the Twitty case. On the Aug. 4 edition of Hotseat (WCPO, Channel 9), Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen said the sheriff put 10 investigators and 1,000 hours into the job. Peter Bronson bumped the grand total to 1,200 hours in his Aug. 7 column in The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Deputy Dan Hargis has ACTAR certification, but he's no longer with the sheriff's traffic unit. In 1997 Hargis was reprimanded for testifying he didn't have a conclusive answer for the cause of a crash. He testified there wasn't enough physical evidence to make a conclusion. His candor got him reprimanded.

When Sharon Zealy, Twitty's attorney, was asked about her confidence in the sheriff's investigation, she declined to comment.

"My client's fate is hanging in the balance," she said.

Twitty is not the only person who might be affected by the quality of investigations by the sheriff's traffic unit. Car accidents affect more people than violent crime.

In a recent deposition for a lawsuit in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court, attorney James Heath asked Jack Holland, a private traffic accident reconstructionist, "Is there such a thing as a bad police report?"

"Yes, sir, there are," Holland testified. "Bad police reports make me a lot of money." ©

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