Many have questions in wake of lawmaker’s exoneration
More than a week after criminal charges stemming from a fatal traffic accident were dismissed against State Rep. Larry Womble, some local residents are questioning why the veteran lawmaker was charged in the first place.
Womble’s car and that of David Carmichael collided around 11 p.m. on Dec. 2, 2011 on Reynolds Park Boulevard, a short distance from Womble’s home. Carmichael died in the crash and Womble was severely injured. Tests showed that Carmichael’s blood alchohol level was well over the legal limit, yet Womble learned months after the crash that he would be facing a misdemeanor death by motor vehicle charge.
The N.C. Attorney General’s Office, which was charged with handling the case to avoid the appearance of bias by the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office, decided to charge Womble after an initial investigation by the Winston-Salem Police Department indicated that it was Womble’s car that crossed the centerline and hit Carmichael’s vehicle. The police department’s investigation reportedly included the statements of two witnesses.
From the beginning, Womble has insisted that he was traveling in the westbound lane of Reynolds Park Boulevard, heading towards a banquet at WSSU, and did not leave his lane.
“I knew that it couldn’t have been Larry (at fault) because I knew he was coming from his home,” said Womble’s attorney David Freedman. “…I had witnesses that could place Larry at his house (east of the scene) just before the accident. Once I heard that the accident happened in the westbound lane … I knew that Larry was not the driver (at fault).”
After viewing the initial WSPD report, Freedman contacted Special Deputy Attorney General Steven Arbogast and asked that he review both Womble and Carmichael’s phone records and talk with Womble’s witnesses, who could support the defense’s claim that he would have been traveling in the westbound lane.
“I had tremendous trust in the prosecutor I was dealing with, that he wanted to do the right thing, so I decided rather than surprising him in court, maybe we could work together,” Freedman said.
[pullquote]“I had tremendous trust in the prosecutor I was dealing with, that he wanted to do the right thing, so I decided rather than surprising him in court, maybe we could work together,” Freedman said.[/pullquote]Arbogast agreed to have the investigation re-opened. During the second investigation, which Freedman said was also led by members of the WSPD, receipts were discovered in Carmichael’s pockets that placed him at a downtown bar west of the scene 20 minutes before the accident. Local law enforcement called in an accident re-constructionist, whose findings corroborated the partial story told by Womble’s phone records (which included a call reminding him of the banquet) and Carmichael’s receipts. Soon after, Arbogast filed the paperwork to have the charges dropped.
Mayor Pro Tempore Vivian Burke, chair of the city’s Public Safety Committee, said that she is concerned that local law enforcement’s initial assessment of the accident was so far off base. She and other city leaders discussed the incident during a City Council meeting on Monday.
“When you give reports like the one that we just got (initially), it makes the citizens doubtful of the police department,” Burke remarked. “… It puts the thought in your head: Did they do what we would consider a thorough investigation? That was the question that I asked (City Manager Lee Garrity), and of course he said that they did.”
Burke added that the incident may be an indication that the police department needs to reevaluate the way it investigates accidents of this nature.
“It would appear that the individuals who investigated it, it would appear that they failed but they will tell you that they used a different tool (to investigate). That’s my understanding,” she said. “I’m sure the next accident that we have … that it will have a better report than this one.”
Police Chief Scott Cunningham declined to comment on the WSPD’s involvement in the case.
“For a variety of reasons, WSPD will not comment for the article,” Cunningham said in a Dec. 3 email to The Chronicle.
Although the initial report turned out to be wrong, Freedman said he doesn’t blame the police. In fact, he said local law enforcement have been more than fair in their handling of the investigation.
“I think they took some extra steps. They on their own contacted the accident re-constructionist once I gave them the witness that put Larry at his home,” he stated. “They reopened the investigation. They didn’t have to do that.”
Womble said he is just happy to be able to put it all behind him.
“I’m grateful to have the State Attorney General’s Office make the ruling that they did,” he said.