Husband Sues NYPD for Botched Investigation Into Death of Clara Heyworth

Jacob Stevens with attorney Steve Vaccaro (speaking), and TA's Paul Steely White (left). Behind Stevens, to his right: Council Member Tish James. Photo: Brad Aaron

The husband of Clara Heyworth, the woman killed by a suspected drunk driver in Fort Greene last summer, filed a lawsuit today against NYPD and called on Mayor Michael Bloomberg to take responsibility for the department’s failure to investigate traffic crashes.

“I’m here because we have a right to know what happens in our city,” said Jacob Stevens, who was joined by Transportation Alternatives and advocates for traffic safety on the steps of City Hall.

In the early morning hours of July 10, 2011, Heyworth was crossing Vanderbilt Avenue to meet Stevens when she was struck by driver Anthony Webb. She died from head injuries the following day. She was 28.

Webb, 43, was charged with driving while intoxicated, operation of a motor vehicle by an unlicensed driver, reckless driving, reckless endangerment, and assault, among other violations. But according to the lawsuit, all criminal charges were dropped, as were plans by prosecutors to seek an indictment for vehicular manslaughter.

Clara Heyworth. Photo via ## York Times##

Though the machine used to administer a breath test to Webb was later found to be working properly, the 88th Precinct had not performed a required calibration for four years. In addition, Stevens said today, NYPD’s Accident Investigation Squad cancelled its investigation one hour after the crash, without coming to the scene. The lawsuit says AIS called off the investigation because Heyworth did not die at the scene, though the precinct officers who first responded summoned AIS because they thought she “may be likely” to die.

When officers arrived several days later, skid marks were gone, and video from a nearby camera that may have captured the crash had been wiped, Stevens said. Meanwhile, according to the lawsuit, Webb was released, with his car, the same day.

“That night, I lost the love of my life, the basis of all of my plans for the future,” said Stevens. Though he expected police to collect evidence, hold the driver in custody, test blood for intoxicants, impound the vehicle and look for witnesses, Stevens said, “The NYPD did none of those things. Not one.”

“I want to know why there was no real investigation and why no one has been held responsible for the lack of that investigation,” said Stevens. “If someone dies, suddenly and violently, we have a right to know what happened. There needs to be a professional and timely investigation, as there is after a shooting. The NYPD made a conscious decision not to investigate the scene of Clara’s death. And we know that this wasn’t an isolated incident — it fits a pattern.”

The lawsuit alleges that NYPD failed to investigate Heyworth’s death and caused evidence to be destroyed, violating New York traffic law and Stevens’ right to access the courts.

According to the suit, due to the delay between the time of the crash and the commencement of the NYPD investigation, no witnesses could be located; no pictures were taken of the crash scene; video evidence was erased; information from the vehicle’s data recorder, which would have indicated speed, was overwritten; driver blood evidence was lost; and skid marks were destroyed. The position of the victim was never recorded, making it impossible to reconstruct the crash. Police did not document vehicle damage for weeks, after the car had been taken to a repair shop.

NYPD’s investigation into the death of cyclist Stefanos Tsigrimanis was also compromised by the “likely to die” rule. AIS did not begin its investigation until nine days after Tsigrimanis was fatally struck by a motorist on Brooklyn’s Grand Avenue, and did not revisit the scene until 46 days after the crash. After interviewing the driver and another motorist, both of whom said they did not see Tsigrimanis until the moment of impact, AIS investigators blamed Tsigrimanis for the collision.

“These kinds of tragedies are shattering peoples’ lives,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. Noting that Mayor Bloomberg donates millions toward traffic safety efforts worldwide, White reiterated TA’s request that the mayor appoint a multi-agency task force to assess the state of city traffic enforcement and crash investigations. White praised Stevens for summoning the courage to come forward and push for reform.

Stevens’ attorney Steve Vaccaro said the policy of investigating crashes only when a victim is killed or believed likely to die is a result of NYPD “rationing” its investigators, and that the department makes its own distinctions between “accidents” and crimes, rather than adhering to the law.

“The difference between an accident and a felony is whether NYPD investigates,” Vaccaro said. “When they don’t, it’s an ‘accident.'”