Investigators: Crosswalk questions - KMSP-TV

Investigators: Crosswalk questions

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Four months after a woman died after being struck by a car in a crosswalk, a Twin Cities family finally feels they're being heard now that Carver County officials are admitting questions went unasked during the death investigation.

After FOX 9 Investigator Trish Van Pilsum went looking for answers, the children of Carol Wiggins say safety changes need to be made.

Every day, the 68-year-old mother would cross two busy streets in Watertown on her walk home from work. Family members say she worried about one of the intersections, and that's why she traveled a block out of her way to use a pedestrian crosswalk.

Last December, however, she was hit by a vehicle in what she thought was a safe place to be --the crosswalk at Territorial Street, County Road 10 and Westminster Avenue.

"Every day in the hospital, I thought there was hope,'" recalled Wiggins' daughter, Maria Cooper. "I just kept telling mom, 'Open your eyes, mom' -- but she didn't."

Wiggins died from a traumatic brain injury while at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. She spent a couple weeks there after the crash.

According to a taped statement the FOX 9 Investigators requested through the state's public records law, the driver of the car that struck Wiggins was on his way home from work and was going to be attending a surprise party in his neighborhood at 6:30 p.m.

At 6:13 p.m., he reached the intersection while Wiggins was halfway across the road.

According to her family, it would have taken her awhile to reach that point, since she walked slowly; however, he hit Wiggins with the front driver's side of the vehicle.

In his taped statement to police, the driver said, "I didn't have time to react. I didn't see this object, this person."

The driver stopped and tried to help Wiggins, who was still breathing at the time.

FOX 9 asked Carver County Chief Deputy Blair Anderson to review his office's investigation into the crosswalk death.

Depending on the circumstances, a driver who kills someone in a crosswalk can face anything from a petty misdemeanor traffic ticket to a felony calling for up to 10 years in prison. Yet, the driver in this case did not get so much as a ticket for inattentive driving, or for failure to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

The driver said he was looking ahead at the road and volunteered that he wasn't distracted or speeding. The Carver County deputy who interviewed the driver asked if he was talking or texting on a phone. The driver said no.

The entire interview lasted 7 minutes, but in that time, the driver made on important admission. Not only did he not see the women he hit, but he said, "I didn't even notice there was a crosswalk in the road."

Still, Carver County Attorney Mark Metz says the fact of a crash alone isn't enough to convict.

"Just alone that he hit a person in a crosswalk isn't sufficient evidence to prove our case beyond a reasonable doubt," Metz said.

When asked if someone could say "I simply didn't see that person" as a defense, Metz said it very well could be.

"It makes absolutely no sense to me," Nancy Johnson, president of Minnesotans for Safe Driving, admitted. "No ticket at all says the guy didn't do anything wrong -- that she was at fault."

Johnson said claiming ignorance wouldn't stop an officer from ticketing a driver for running through a stop sign -- and other prosecutors in different cities pursued charges in similar crashes.

A woman hit and killed a pedestrian she says she never saw while driving in St. Paul in July of 2010. Right away, the prosecutor charged her with failure to yield to a pedestrian.

In December 2008, a similar crash occurred in Chaska. That driver, who said he didn't see the elderly man until it was too late, was also cited for hitting and killing a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

"If a cop sees you go through a stop sign is he not going to give you a ticket because you didn't see it?," said Nancy Johnson, President of Minnesotans for Safe Driving. "It makes absolutely no sense to me. No ticket at all says the guy didn't do anything wrong. That she was at fault, added Johnson.

Consider two other cases. In both, drivers hit and killed pedestrians they claimed they never saw who were in crosswalks.

"Obviously, crosswalks are there for a reason," said Anderson.

Yet, when the FOX 9 Investigators asked what good they serve if they don't actually protect the pedestrian, Anderson responded, "Well, in this case, not much."

Metz admitted that it was clear the driver failed to yield, but he says the darkness contributed to the crash.

"It was about 6:18 at night in December, and it was poorly lit," Metz said.

Metz told FOX 9 his office gave the case "careful consideration." The issue came down to whether or not the driver should have seen Wiggins. He says he can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt the driver should have.

The driver himself did not use darkness as an excuse.

We did not identify him because he was not charged with any crime. He did not want to do an on camera interview, but he told FOX 9 he still has no idea why did didn't see Wiggens. It's a question that haunts him to this day and he believes he could have done nothing to prevent it.

When asked whether he was driving attentively that night, he replied, "as attentively as I have driven a thousand other times. He then asked reporter Trish Van Pilsum, "Do you always drive attentively?"

The FOX 9 Investigators have learned that neither the county nor the city has ever gotten a complaint about poor lighting at the intersection where Wiggins was hit. Since the December crash, the county has not improved the lighting. Even the officials who have blamed lighting rather than driver inattention for Wiggins' death haven't called for it.

Metz e-mailed the FOX 9 Investigators this week saying his office is taking a critical look at the whole investigation in light of our questions, but they haven't changed their mind about charges. He did say he will work with city and county officials to make the intersection safer because of the FOX 9 report.

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