Consider the question answered and the case closed.
When Tiara Maria Smith and Nebula Denise McNeely blew through a red light, slamming into a sedan and killing three of its occupants in June 2006, they were running not because the police were chasing them - but because they thought the cops would.
It's a big difference, and it's an important one. Family members of those who died in the crash have filed a lawsuit against the Columbia County Sheriff's Office, claiming that Smith's SUV ran the red light on Washington Road at Bobby Jones Expressway because a sheriff's deputy violated policy by pursuing the fleeing vehicle through a congested area.
Instead, as court testimony this past week revealed, criminal newbie Smith sped down Washington Road after a shoplifting at the Marshall's department store in Evans because she and her front-seat partner in crime, frequent felon McNeely, didn't want to get caught.
That turns out to be just one more dismal failure in their plans that day. Smith pled guilty to multiple felonies in September and was sentenced to life in prison plus 10 years. As part of her plea, she agreed to testify against McNeely.
That testimony helped a jury last Thursday convict McNeely of two counts of murder, one count of feticide, two counts of serious injury by vehicle, cruelty to children, fleeing and attempting to elude police and shoplifting.
Judge Duncan Wheale then sentenced McNeely to prison for three consecutive life sentences - one with no possibility of parole - plus 26 years.
"I hope you never get out of prison," Wheale said as he slammed the door on McNeely's freedom.
Naturally, some have questioned how a passenger in a vehicle could be found responsible for a fatal wreck. But long-standing Georgia legal doctrine says "the hand of one is the hand of all" in criminal cases - and testimony last week made it clear that McNeely's hands might just as well have been on the wheel that June afternoon.
The two women - Smith, with no significant criminal record, and McNeely, who at the time was on parole for one of her many convictions - had been caught shoplifting at the Mullins Crossing Marshall's. The women ran from the store to Smith's SUV, and the Augusta residents then sped from the parking lot and headed east on Washington Road.
Less than half a mile away, their vehicle was clocked at more than 70 mph in a 45 mph zone by a westbound motorcycle deputy. That part of the court testimony is crucial, because it proves that the shoplifters weren't speeding because they were being chased by police - they were speeding long before there were any cops around.
In fact, when the deputy's radar alerted him to the speeding SUV, he didn't even know about the shoplifting; all he knew was that they were breaking the speed limit. By the time he turned around in traffic and flipped on his lights and sirens, Smith and McNeely were already well on their way to the site of the fatal crash.
Though she already was speeding, Smith testified that McNeely yelled at her to drive faster when they met the deputy and saw his blue lights come on in their rear-view mirror. McNeely, Smith said, was afraid of being sent back to prison.
What the testimony makes clear is that Martinez residents Margaret Patricia Branton, 63, her 37-year-old son, Lonnie D. Turner, and Turner's unborn child carried by his wife, Mary, lost their lives not because a deputy was doing his job - but because McNeely didn't want to lose her freedom.
Instead, her selfish greed sends her to prison for the rest of her miserable life, while three innocent people were given the death penalty.
And unlike McNeely, they don't get an appeal.
Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barry.paschal at newstimesonline.com.
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