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A Texas judge Monday cleared a driver of criminal negligent homicide in a 2004 Texas crash after a lawyer for General Motors Co. said the air bags may not have inflated because of the ignition switch defect linked to at least 35 deaths.

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. Air bags on both driver side and and passenger side failed to deploy.

Anderson was convicted of criminal negligent homicide and paid $2,500 in fines and court costs along with performing 260 hours of community service, counseling and five years of probation. She suffered injuries including broken ribs and a injured liver.

"Due to the wreck, and being charged with criminal negligent homicide, I lost my chosen career," Anderson said in a statement. "I trained and worked as a (certified nurse's aide). I applied and was denied positions at numerous jobs due to my criminal record. ... This has not been an easy road.

Van Zandt County District Judge Teresa Drum granted Anderson's application for a writ of habeas corpus — typically the last chance a person convicted of a crime who has exhausted appeals can use to try to get a conviction expunged, said Robert Hilliard, a lawyer for Anderson.

"GM knew this defect caused this death yet, instead of telling the truth, watched silently as Candice was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. It took 10 years for GM to find its voice. How many district attorney's around the country are now wondering if they may have sent an innocent person to prison?" said Hilliard. "I call on GM to double its efforts to find all victims of this defect. If there were others who were wrongfully prosecuted, GM should take affirmative and aggressive steps to have those convictions immediately overturned."

On Monday, Hilliard released a letter from GM lawyer Richard Godfrey that confirmed "the crash involving Ms. Anderson is one in which the recall condition may have caused or contributed to the air bag nondeployment in the accident."

"Candice Anderson has lived with this wrongful conviction for too long," Hilliard says. "GM allowed the victim to be convicted. Now, on the day of the hearing to prove it was GM and not Candice, GM admits what it has known since 2004."

GM spokesman Jim Cain earlier in the day said the automaker would cooperate fully with the court. "Issues being discussed in this case are for local law enforcement and the courts to consider, and in a courtroom they are separate issues from the performance of the vehicle," he said. "That's why we have taken a neutral position on Ms. Anderson's case. It is appropriate for the court to determine the legal status of Ms. Anderson."

Cain also noted that the GM compensation program run by Kenneth Feinberg is set up to evaluate claims without consideration of contributory negligence.

Feinberg referred to a case like Anderson's when he announced GM's victim compensation program, and said he would consider a prosecution as "extraordinary circumstances" worthy of additional compensation.

Anderson told CNN last month she would accept a settlement from the GM victims compensation fund. "I am ready for it to be over. I just want to move on. I don't have the endurance for a lawsuit and a long-drawn process," Anderson said.

In July, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. 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 prosecuted.

In July, 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."

DShepardson@detroitnews.com

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