By Linda Looney-Bond
A Clayton County grand jury has indicted a former Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) investigator on charges of first-degree homicide by vehicle, and reckless driving.
The case invovles a December, fatal car crash, that prosecutors say, the then-investigator caused while driving a state vehicle recklessly.
Kellie Elaine Bennett was indicted Wednesday. The first-degree homicide by vehicle charge is a felony, and the reckless driving charge is a misdemeanor, according to Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson.
The incident occurred Dec. 18 on Ga. Hwy 54/Jonesboro Rd., near Astor Ave., in Forest Park, according to a Georgia State Patrol incident report.
Robert James, 76, of Forest Park, a passenger in a vehicle which police say Bennett struck, died Jan. 9, as a result of injuries sustained in the crash.
According to the police report, Bennett's "unmarked GBI Unit was traveling ... with emergency lights and audible siren activated." Bennett drove through a red traffic light and struck the vehicle in which James was a passenger, which was driven by his wife, Mary Elizabeth James, according to the police report.
"She [Bennett] was headed to a death scene where, apparently, a person had committed suicide," said Bennett's attorney, Lee Sexton. "She felt it was an emergency. She thought it was important that she get there expeditiously," said Sexton.
Bennett worked for the GBI's medical examiner's office, which was the designated coroner for Clayton County, according to GBI Spokesman John Bankhead. Bankhead confirmed that Bennett was fired as a result of the incident.
"She was authorized to drive it [ the state vehicle] - not use the emergency lights," Bankhead said. "She had a direct order not to use the emergency lights," he said. "As far as driving and busting through red lights, and driving on the wrong side of the road, she was not authorized to do that."
Sexton said Bennett, and other investigators in her division, were over-worked, and the division was under-staffed. "The evidence that will be produced at trial is going to raise a level of concern about the personnel decisions that have occurred within the Georgia Bureau of Investigation," said Sexton. "There are people that are working 20-hour days," he said.
Bankhead confirmed that the GBI's medical examiner's office has added more investigators since December. "We had three investigators that worked out of the Atlanta office [in December], and we had three back-ups to assist the medical examiner investigators," he said. Now, he said, there are eight investigators working out of the Atlanta office, with three back-up investigators.
"This is a sad case," said Sexton. "There's no bad guy involved here. We have a good, long-time employee of the GBI. Because of a traffic accident, her career has ended," he said. "At the same time, we've got a family [grieving]. Her [Bennett's] heart has gone out to the family of the person that died.
"She expressed to me that she prays for them every night in her prayers," said Sexton. "She is devastated over the fact that her actions have caused the death of anybody."
Sexton said he will seek to get the charges reduced, because, he said, the incident was a tragic accident with no intent to do harm. "We will work to resolve the case," he said. "I'm hoping that if they [D.A.'s office] do agree to a misdemeanor grade of vehicular homicide, then we would consider entering a plea," Sexton said.
"That is not being offered by the D.A.'s office," said District Attorney Lawson, regarding a possible plea deal in the case.
Sexton said Bennett will turn herself in to the Clayton County Jail early next week, and will post a $10,000 bond.
Lawson said an arraignment should take place some time next month, with the trial anticipated to take place in September.