July 16, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Senator wants GM to back pardon for woman in ignition switch crash

Washington — U.S. Sen Richard Blumenthal wants General Motors Co. to back a pardon for a Texas woman convicted with criminal homicide in a 2004 crash involving a GM vehicle built with a faulty ignition switch that killed her fiancee.

In 2004, Candice Anderson — then 21 — lost control of her 2004 Saturn Ion while driving down a county road in East Texas; her fiancé, Gene Mikale Erickson was killed when the car left the road and hit a grove of trees head on. Both the driver and passenger airbags failed to deploy and GM has linked the ignition defect to Erickson’s death — one of 13 deaths and 54 crashes linked to faulty ignition switches in 2.6 million recalled GM cars.

Blumenthal called on GM CEO Mary Barra to back a pardon and said the Justice Department may hold GM accountable for failing to make the defect known when she was being prosecuted. “I’ve called on GM to join me in urging the Texas governor to pardon Candice Anderson. They know what caused Gene Erickson’s death,” he said. Her experience shows “in human terms the consequences — the far reaching ramifications of concealment” of safety issues.

Also on Wednesday, the East Texas District Attorney at the time, Leslie Poynter Dixon, wrote a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons, asking the conviction be set aside in the wake of the new information about the defect.

“I believe (GM’s defect) caused her vehicle to seize up, locking her steering and making any control of her vehicle impossible. Based upon what I now know these issues were the direct cause of the loss of control of the vehicle,” Dixon wrote. “It is my opinion that no action or omission of Ms. Anderson was the cause of the accident that led to her criminal charges. Had I known at the time that GM knew of these issues and has since admitted to such, I do not believe the Grand Jury would have indicted her.”

GM spokesman Greg Martin declined to comment on the pardon issue.

In a statement, Anderson noted she went through a lengthy court process, paid extensive attorneys fees and a bail bondsman and was convicted of Criminal Negligent Homicide and paid $2,500 in fines and court costs along with 260 hours of community service, counseling and five years of probation, saying GM had put her through “torture” as a result.

“Due to the wreck, and being charged with criminal negligent homicide, I lost my chosen career. I trained and worked as a Certified Nurses Aid. I applied and was denied positions at numerous jobs due to my criminal record. This affects me even to date. I’ve been enrolled for the past 3 years in college, studying for a degree in nursing. This has not been an easy road,” Anderson said. “Teachers and parents believe I’m a murderer. I worry for my children’s future and how this will follow them. It’s painful and I’m scared for them. I’ve have tried to deal with this physically and emotionally for the better part of 10 years. My conviction affects every part of my life, past, present, and future.”

Anderson has since sued GM in connection with the crash. Her lawyer Bob Hilliard also asked GM to back a pardon.

GM victim compensation expert Ken Feinberg referred to a case like hers earlier this month when he announced GM’s victim compensation program and said he would consider a prosecution as “extraordinary circumstances” worthy of additional compensation.

Blumenthal noted that the U.S. Attorney in New York, aided by a federal grand jury and the FBI, are investigating GM’s conduct. “My hope is it will be concluded as quickly as possible,” he said, noting that prosecutors could use fraud or obstruction statutes.

He introduced a bill on Wednesday with Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that would make it a five-year felony for auto execs and other business leaders to withhold information about safety defects. “Those laws are inadequate,” said Blumenthal. “Deterrence works. The prospect of imprisonment works as a deterrent.” The bill may be “the hammer over the head that corporate execs need to understand the perils and grave damage that concealment can do.”

Blumenthal also criticized a full-page GM ad in the New York Times featuring a giant key that reads: “The key to safety” is to only use the ignition key. Blumenthal called the ad “simplistic and self serving advice. The message today is the key to safety is really disclosure” of safety issues. “That’s what saves lives.”

DShepardson@detroitnews.com