Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Jury awards $5.6M
in death from car chase

The suspect fleeing from police
is found to be most at fault

HILO » A Big Island jury has awarded $5.6 million to survivors of a woman killed during a police car chase in September 2000.

Three police cars chased suspect Richard Rosario, then 20, who slammed his vehicle into a car in which Ellison Sweezey, 31, was a passenger, killing her.

The jurors determined that Rosario, who had been using crystal methamphetamine for many days and had not slept for two weeks at the time of the accident, was 66 percent responsible.

Hawaii County was 34 percent responsible, the jury said.

Rosario is serving a 20-year term for manslaughter in the case, so he cannot pay any of the judgment.

Before the trial, Judge Greg Nakamura ruled that Hawaii County would have to pay only the percentage of the judgment determined by the jury, not Rosario's portion.

In effect, that reduces the jury's award to $1.9 million, which the county will pay.

Robert Marx, attorney for seven family members and for Sweezey's estate, said he was happy with the judgment since the county had offered to settle the case before the trial for just $200,000.

Dwayne Lerma, attorney for an eighth family member, Paulyn Estioko, who was driving the car in which Sweezey was killed, said the verdict sends a statement to police departments statewide that they must follow their own safety standards regarding automobile chases.

Hawaii County police are subject to General Order 602, which says "pursuit shall be terminated" for any of a number of reasons, including when the suspect is not wanted for a violent felony or the pursuit involves unreasonable risk.

He said there were several reasons to stop the chase, including the lack of a violent felony offense and the chase heading toward densely populated Hilo.

Police began the Sept. 7, 2000, chase because they saw Rosario passing on the shoulder of a rural highway. Police linked his car to a Puna home where a 911 call just originated, but they determined that the 911 call was not connected to violence, Marx said.

A lieutenant who was supposed to supervise the chase by radio went off duty at the end of his shift, despite the chase still being under way, Marx said.

Hitting heavier traffic as they entered Hilo, police slowed to about 50 mph, still above the 35 mph speed limit. Rosario's vehicle crossed an intersection against a red light and hit Estioko's car, killing Sweezey.

In a deposition taken in an Alabama prison, Rosario said because of the "ice" use, he thought for days that he saw undercover agents in bushes.

During the chase, he thought police intended to kill him, he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board found 1,800 deaths linked to high-speed police chases between 1994 and 1998, Marx said. Two-thirds of the deaths involved suspects, while one-third involved innocent people. The deaths included 21 police officers.

"They just end badly," Marx said.

The attorney representing Hawaii County could not be reached for comment.

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