No criminal charges in trans woman's death by auto

No criminal charges in trans woman's death by auto

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The investigation into a fatal traffic accident that claimed the life of transgender woman Erika Keels was officially closed in March, with no criminal charges brought against the driver, Roland Bottom.

But a review of the investigative file released last week raised questions about the decision not to pursue criminal charges against Bottom.

The incident took place at 5 a.m. March 21, 2007, as Keels was crossing Broad Street near Stiles in North Philadelphia.

According to police records, Bottom admitted to driving south on Broad Street at about 45 mph on his way to work when he struck Keels.

If his statement is accurate, Bottom was traveling at least 20 mph in excess of the posted speed limit on Broad Street.

Bottom also told police he was driving without corrective lenses — a violation of the restriction on his driver’s license that he must wear corrective lenses when operating a motor vehicle.

Keels, 20, died two days later at Hahnemann University Hospital after sustaining multiple broken bones, a fractured skull and internal bleeding. She never regained consciousness after she was hit.

The investigative file offers sketchy details about the crash.

“I don’t know where [Keels] came from,” Bottom told police, describing the crash. “The first time I saw him, he was running right at me. I stopped right after I hit him. I really don’t know if I skidded to a stop or not.”

Upon impact, Keels went airborne about 65 feet and crashed into a parked car, shattering its window, then hit a fire hydrant before resting on the sidewalk at Broad and Stiles.

“The man was acting really erratic before I hit him,” Bottom added. “I didn’t know if he had mental problems or what. He wasn’t acting normal; he ran right toward my car.”

Police didn’t test Bottom for drugs or alcohol in his system, noting that he appeared coherent and didn’t display any signs of impairment during his interview.

According to medical records, Keels had drugs in her system at the time of the crash, which could have affected her ability to cross Broad Street in a safe manner.

But advocates for Keels say Bottom was culpable in her death because he was driving recklessly. Some say he should have faced criminal charges, including vehicular homicide.

According to state criminal code, any person who recklessly or with gross negligence causes the death of another person while violating traffic rules or restrictions on the operation or use of a motor vehicle may be guilty of vehicular homicide.

Advocates for Keels also question why police didn’t cite Bottom for speeding, though in July 2007 he was issued a ticket and penalized $125 for failing to wear corrective lenses while driving, which is considered a minor summary offense.

One eyewitness to the crash, Matthew Carney, told police his attention was focused on Keels, thus he couldn’t comment on the manner in which Bottom was operating his vehicle.

Carney told police that Keels was jaywalking in a northwesterly direction while crossing Broad Street.

“The pedestrian hesitated, then moved left, then right, then right, erratically, then got hit by a car,” Carney told police. “The person then flew straight up in the air, bounced off something, then hit a hydrant on the sidewalk, by the corner at Stiles Street.”

Police did not interview any other witnesses, and the 911 tape wasn’t retrieved by investigators to determine whether additional witnesses existed.

At press time, Sgt. Ray Evers, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Police Department, couldn’t comment on the specifics of the case. But Evers expressed confidence that the police investigation into Keels’ death was thorough.

“I don’t think the police department would slight an investigation just because the victim was transgender,” Evers told PGN. “Everyone would get the same level of service. You had someone killed by a motor vehicle. It’s a person’s death that has to be investigated.”

Assistant District Attorney John J. Doyle, who reviewed the investigative file, said the facts of the case don’t warrant criminal charges against Bottom.

“We have a victim jaywalking in an uneven direction, causing her own death,” Doyle told PGN. “We don’t have this potential defendant [Bottom] doing anything that would be considered a gross deviation from the norm. We simply do not have anywhere near sufficient evidence to charge this person with a crime.”

According to Doyle, jaywalking can be considered contributory to a fatality and, in some cases, can clear the driver of criminal wrongdoing.

Bottom, 72, couldn’t be reached for comment. Police say they have no plan to recommend to the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles that Bottom be sight-tested when his driver’s license comes up for renewal later this month.

Tim Cwiek can be reached at (215) 625-8501 ext. 208.

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