Judge tosses manslaughter conviction for GM driver

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A Pennsylvania judge on Wednesday dismissed the manslaughter conviction of a Pittsburgh woman who crashed a since-recalled 2007 Chevrolet Cobalt into a bus and utility pole, killing a 16-year-old in the car.

Lakisha Ward-Green, 25, was driving the car in September 2010 in Penn Hills Township, Pennsylvania, when she lost control on a curvy road, trying to avoid a car. Her passenger, Robert Chambers IV, 16, the son of a close friend, was not wearing a seat belt and he was killed. Ward-Green spent four days in the hospital, said her lawyer Bob Hilliard.

She was charged with traveling 75 mph in a 35-mph zone. The car’s black box shows she was traveling 75 mph four seconds before the crash, and that none of the air bags deployed. Hilliard presented testimony from an expert witness on Wednesday that showed the airbags failed to deploy.

Ward-Green pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and reckless driving. After Hilliard presented evidence from an expert witness and Ward-Green at hearing Wednesday, Alleghany County Court of Common Pleas Judge Phillip Ignelzi signed an order setting aside the conviction.

She lost a job because of the conviction. “This is purely about justice for her,” Hilliard said in an interview. “There is nothing she is going to do except live her life more freely.

The 2007 Cobalt was among the 2.6 million vehicles recalled by GM in 2014 for ignition switch defects.

The switch can allow the key to inadvertently turn off the engine, disabling power steering and air bags. GM’s independent compensation fund approved awards in 124 deaths and 275 injuries attributed to the defect.

Hilliard said Ward-Green and the family of the 16-year-old were awarded compensation by GM’s compensation fund.

The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office in April opposed the request, saying she is barred under statute from filing a challenge more than a year after conviction. Mike Manko, a spokesman for the office, said prosecutors will decide in the next few days whether to appeal.

Hilliard said the black box download “revealed the car was in accessory mode at the time of the accident. We now know that her vehicle was subject to the ignition switch recall. Unfortunately, no one knew of the defect at the time and Lakisha was charged with involuntary manslaughter and reckless driving.”

GM spokesman Jim Cain said the automaker had no comment on the decision.

Ward-Green was sentenced to 121 days in jail; she served two months and was sentenced to three years probation to expire in January. She is now in school studying for a job in the auto industry.

Hilliard says the defective switch in Ward-Green’s Cobalt “caused the engine to shut down, disabled the power steering and power brakes and prevented deployment of the frontal air bags and seat belt pretensioners.” He cited an expert report completed in January. “The new evidence demonstrates that Ms. Ward Green is, in fact, innocent of the crimes to which she pled guilty.”

This isn’t the first criminal case to be challenged because of the GM recall.

In 2014, a judge cleared a driver of criminal negligent homicide in a 2004 Texas crash after GM acknowledged the air bags in a 2004 Saturn Ion may not have inflated because of an ignition switch defect.

Candice Anderson, then 21, lost control on a county road. Her fiance was killed and she was sentenced to 250 hours of community service and $2,500 in court costs.