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Cars drive past a roadside memorial for Matt Keenan, who was killed while biking in Mission Valley, Feb. 2, 2022.
Andrew Bowen
Cars drive past a roadside memorial for Matt Keenan, who was killed while biking in Mission Valley, Feb. 2, 2022.

When drivers kill, victims' families often feel let down by justice system in San Diego

Speaker 1: (00:00)

San Diego and the nation are seen an alarming rise in traffic deaths. K PBS Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen says even in cases of recklessness or negligence drivers who kill often don't face any serious consequences.

Speaker 2: (00:14)

His bike group got these flowers. Those have been there from almost the beginning. Laura

Speaker 3: (00:19)

Keenan shows me around the roadside Memorial. She and others created for her husband, Matt. Last September, he was struck and killed by a wrong way. Driver while biking in mission valley, Keenan is now the single mother of their one year old son. Evan.

Speaker 2: (00:36)

I miss waking up in the morning and seeing him cutting fruit for Evan at eating and smiling and making happy food noises. And I miss him being able to find humor in the most mundane or awful situations. And I miss how he makes me feel

Speaker 3: (00:54)

The death toll on city streets last year was 67. The deadliest year, since San Diego adopted its zero goal of ending all traffic deaths. Some experts attribute the trend to more reckless driving during the pandemic, the driver who killed Matt said she thought she was on a one way street and that she never saw Matt coming. Keenan doesn't buy it.

Speaker 2: (01:16)

Something had to make her extremely distracted and really what that is. Shouldn't be the issue. She was so distracted that she did not see my husband, his extremely bright lights. She never hit the brakes. You hit the brakes for a box in the road and she did not hit the brakes from my husband.

Speaker 3: (01:36)

Keenan was devastated infuriated. When the district attorney's office told her last month, they didn't see enough ever evidence to charge the driver with a felony. Instead they referred the case to the city attorney's office as a misdemeanor.

Speaker 2: (01:50)

He lost his life and, and I hoped that I would at least find some peace in our justice system.

Speaker 3: (02:01)

Instead, Keenan found a whole new life of pain and suffering

Speaker 4: (02:06)

Manslaughter looks at the negligence of the driver. Who's at fault.

Speaker 3: (02:10)

Mark sch is a civil attorney who previously prosecuted vehicular manslaughter cases in both the da and city attorney's offices. He says, felony charges have to involve gross negligence. The term is imprecise, but in, in practice, it usually means if the driver was intoxicated or showed recklessness far beyond the norm in

Speaker 4: (02:31)

Cases where it's simple negligence, maybe just you pull up to a stop sign and you look to your left, but you don't look back to your right before going and you didn't realize a pedestrian. I walked out in front of your car, stuff like that is gonna be more characterized as simple negligence. And that in those cases, the charge will be filed. As a misdemeanor.

Speaker 3: (02:48)

San Diego county has seen nearly 300 prosecutions of vehicular manslaughter in the last seven years. And roughly two thirds were felonies. That number does not include traffic deaths where no criminal charges are filed at all skill says, prosecutors may also be reluctant to file felony charges because of jury bias. Most jurors in San Diego drive every day and are likely to put themselves in the defendant's shoes.

Speaker 4: (03:15)

They generally think that they are themselves of drivers. And so when they've been in incidents which were near misses or, or other collisions, I think they think, you know, it wasn't their fault. And so that permeates their mindset. When they're sitting as jurors

Speaker 5: (03:28)

Too often, people use the word accountability as a proxy for punishment.

Speaker 3: (03:32)

Amanda Berman works for the center for court innovation in New York city. She's heard from countless families like Keenans who say the legal system has failed them. So the center is developing a program that will bring drivers face to face with the loved ones of the victims they killed

Speaker 5: (03:49)

And hear from them firsthand who that person was and what the impact is of your actions, how it has destroyed lives and having to confront that and reckon with that is much more powerful and much more likely to change behavior.

Speaker 3: (04:06)

Keenan says she's not all that concerned about how much time the driver spends behind bars, nor does she want an apology.

Speaker 2: (04:13)

I think the only thing that would give me any peace from the driver is that she does something throughout her life to prevent this from happening again,

Speaker 3: (04:22)

An outcome she's unlikely to get from the justice system, Andrew Bowen, KPBS news.

San Diego has seen an alarming rise in traffic deaths recently, with the death toll on city streets last year reaching 72. That makes 2021 the deadliest year since before 2015, when San Diego adopted its "Vision Zero" goal of ending all traffic deaths within a decade.

Some experts attribute the trend, which can be observed across the state and nation, to a rise in reckless driving during the COVID-19 pandemic. But even in cases of recklessness or negligence, drivers who kill often face few if any serious consequences.

That's a lesson Laura Keenan learned the hard way. Keenan's husband, Matt, was struck and killed by a wrong way driver while he was biking in Mission Valley last September. She is now the single mother of their 1-year-old son, Evan.

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"I miss waking up in the morning and seeing him cutting fruit for Evan and eating and smiling and making happy food noises, and I miss him being able to find humor in the most mundane or awful situations," Keenan said. "I miss how he makes me feel."

Keenan, who has since become an outspoken advocate for improving bike safety infrastructure, said she was devastated and infuriated when the District Attorney's Office told her last month there was not enough evidence to charge the driver with a felony. Instead the case was sent to the San Diego City Attorney's Office as a misdemeanor.

RELATED: Five Years Into 'Vision Zero,' San Diego Streets Are Even Deadlier

The driver told police she thought the street, Camino Del Rio South, was one-way, and that she never saw the cyclist coming.

Keenan does not buy those excuses. She asked the San Diego Police Department to search the driver's phone records for evidence that she was distracted, but never heard back on that request.

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"Something had to make (the driver) extremely distracted, and really, what that is shouldn’t be the issue," Keenan said. "She was so distracted that she did not see my husband and his extremely bright lights. She never hit the brakes."

Matt Keenan sits with his son Evan in front of a red bike.
Laura Keenan
Matt Keenan, who was killed while biking in Mission Valley, sits with his son, Evan, in front of his bike.

Vehicular manslaughter can be charged as either a felony or misdemeanor depending on the facts of the case, said Mark Skeels, a civil attorney and former prosecutor in both the District Attorney's Office and City Attorney's Office. Felonies must be accompanied by "gross negligence" — an imprecise term that, in practice, typically means the driver was intoxicated or showed recklessness far beyond the norm.

"In cases where it's simple negligence — maybe just you pull up to a stop sign and you look to your left but you don't look back to your right before going, and you didn't realize a pedestrian had walked out in front of your car — stuff like that is going to be more characterized as simple negligence," Skeels said. "In those cases, the charge will be filed as a misdemeanor."

RELATED: San Diego, 6 other prosecutors warn of surge in deadly DUI crashes

Prosecutors may also be reluctant to file felony charges in borderline cases because of jury bias. Most jurors in San Diego County drive every day and are likely to put themselves in the defendant's shoes, Skeels said.

"They generally think that they are themselves safe drivers, and so when they've been in incidents which were near misses or other collisions, I think they think it wasn't their fault," Skeels said. "And so that permeates their mindset when they're sitting as jurors."

Data on the consequences drivers face for killing with their cars is hard to come by. Many cases never end up in criminal court because prosecutors do not see a strong enough case, or because police determined the victim — often a pedestrian or cyclist — was at fault.

Laura Keenan holds her son, Evan, and a picture of her her late husband, Matt, while standing next to a "ghost bike" memorial where Matt was killed while biking.
Andrew Bowen
Laura Keenan holds her son, Evan, and a picture of her her late husband, Matt, while standing next to a "ghost bike" memorial where Matt was killed while biking, Sept. 25, 2021.

Safe streets advocates often argue a deceased victim never gets to tell their side of the story, and that motorists should be held to a higher standard because they are operating the machines that have the potential to kill.

Records on vehicular manslaughter prosecutions are split between the City Attorney's Office, which handles misdemeanors committed in the city of San Diego, and the District Attorney's Office, which handles misdemeanors outside the city as well as felonies countywide.

RELATED: Surge In Cyclist Deaths Prompts Calls For Faster Safety Upgrades

The two offices maintain separate and distinct case management systems that make it difficult to draw conclusions from the data. In addition, no office or department in the county tracks the number of traffic fatalities that are never referred for prosecution.

The records that are available show 292 prosecutions of vehicular manslaughter in San Diego County since 2015 — 185 felonies and 107 misdemeanors. The vast majority of the felony cases — about 77% — involved driving while intoxicated.

More than a fifth of the cases have no data on the defendant's punishment, either because the trial has not concluded, the case ended in a dismissal or acquittal or the prosecutor did not enter the sentence into the offices' case management systems.

Most of the cases with no sentencing data are misdemeanors prosecuted by the District Attorney's Office. Of the misdemeanors prosecuted by the City Attorney's Office, most ended with sentences including probation, fines or community service but no jail time. Only two cases indicate the defendant's driver's license was suspended.

Of the 127 felony cases with sentencing data, roughly half resulted in prison or jail sentences of six years or less.

RELATED: For Those Touched By Traffic Deaths, Bike Safety Delays Are Especially Painful

When drivers kill, victims' families often feel let down by justice system in San Diego

Laura Keenan's disappointment with the criminal justice system's handling of her husband's killer is not uncommon, said Amanda Berman, deputy director of regional programs for the Center for Court Innovation in New York City.

The center has been running a "Driver Accountability Program" since 2015 that offers drivers ticketed for minor traffic violations an alternative to traditional punishments like fines. Instead they complete a 90-minute group course that focuses on safe driving habits and includes a video with testimonials from the families of victims killed by motorists.

The program is based on restorative justice principles, which emphasize healing and restitution over punishment.

"Too often people use the word accountability as a proxy for punishment," Berman said. "The way that we think about justice… removes this framework of punishment, and instead it really allows the parties to define for themselves what accountability looks like."

Berman said the center only recently got funding to analyze the program's impact on recidivism, but that surveys show participants report high satisfaction and improvements in their beliefs around safe driving.

RELATED: San Diego Pledged To Shift Away From Cars. So Why Is It Still Widening Roads?

The center is also developing a program called "Circles for Safe Streets" that will bring drivers face to face with the loved ones of the victims they killed — an interaction that Berman said the legal system tends to discourage.

"Going to prison or jail in some ways can be easier on them than having to sit in a room with the person whose loved one you took from them, and hear from them firsthand who that person was and what the impact is of your actions, how it has destroyed lives," Berman said. "Having to confront that and reckon with that is much more powerful and much more likely to change behavior."
Keenan is not concerned with how much time her husband's killer spends behind bars, nor does she want an apology.

"I think the only thing that would give me any peace from the driver is that she does something throughout her life to prevent this from happening again," Keenan said. "If she's able to share her story, just like I'm able to share my story, it has so much more power."

When drivers kill, victims' families often feel let down by justice system in San Diego
  • 2021 saw more fatal car crashes in San Diego than any year since the city adopted its "Vision Zero" goal of ending all traffic deaths. Even in cases of recklessness or negligence, drivers who kill often face few serious consequences.
  • Virus Outbreak California Daily Life
    AP
    A new survey ranks San Diego as the least affordable metro area in the country, the ACLU sues for more transparency over the future of downtown's privately-run federal prison, and local schools resume field trips as pandemic restrictions ease.

Updated: February 23, 2022 at 4:33 PM PST
This story was updated to reflect the most recent count of traffic deaths in 2021.
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