Just before 2 a.m. on July 10th, 2011, Jacob Stevens, a managing director at Verso Books, was waiting for his wife Clara Heyworth to cross Brooklyn's Vanderbilt Avenue to meet him. The couple had been happily married for a year and half—Heyworth, 28, met Stevens while working at Verso Books' London office, and they lived together in the Fort Greene, a neighborhood Heyworth loved. That all ended once Heyworth stepped off the sidewalk—the next thing Stevens remembers, he was kneeling by his wife as she lay bleeding on Vanderbilt Avenue. She'd been hit by a driver named Anthony Webb, 43, who was driving with a learner's permit that prohibited him from operating the vehicle without supervision. Criminal charges were never filed, and now Stevens is suing Webb—and the NYPD for failing to properly investigate the crash.

Because of the trauma, Stevens has no visual memory of his wife's death. "I would have been the only witness to the crash, but I don't have a visual memory of it, just an auditory memory," Stevens explains. "My visual memory resumes when I am by her side and screaming for help. But I can't see the car or the impact. I recall the brakes screeching and it sounded like it was going too fast, but the sound of the impact wouldn't count as evidence of speeding and reckless driving."

061112clara.jpgAn officer from the 88th Precinct smelled alcohol on Webb's breath, and administered a roadside breath test about an hour after the accident. It registered a reading of .07, and although .08 is the legal limit for a DUI in New York, the test was administered after an hour had passed, and would have been enough to prosecute. Webb was at first slapped with number of charges, including operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, reckless driving, and operation of a motor vehicle by an unlicensed driver.

The Brooklyn DA initially planned to charge Webb with vehicular manslaughter, a felony. But the case quickly fell apart, in part because the breath test unit the 88th Precinct carries around needs to be calibrated on a regular basis to be admissible in court, and this unit had not been calibrated since 2007. But the bigger problem—and the reason why Stevens is suing—is that the NYPD's Accident Investigation Squad [AIS] failed to conduct a thorough investigation of the crash. In fact, AIS called off the investigation an hour after the Webb ran Heyworth over, and they didn't even go to the crash scene until days later.

New York State law requires a thorough AIS investigation in the event of "serious physical injury," including "serious protracted disfigurement, protracted impairment of health or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ." But the NYPD's Patrolman’s Handbook only requires the AIS to conduct investigations when the victim is likely to die. And when AIS contacted the hospital to check on Heyworth's status, the doctors fighting to save her life told investigators it was too soon to tell. To the AIS, this translated to "not likely" to die.

Making matters worse, AIS investigators are not required to document the identity of the hospital employee who provides the crucial prognosis about the patient's fate. In fact, investigators are not even required to seek out the physician directly in charge of the victim. Stevens's lawsuit asserts that in many cases "the AIS receives opinions regarding the likelihood of death from other physicians or non-physicians who do not have reliable information."

Heyworth succumbed to her injuries a day later, but by the time AIS was notified and went to the scene three days after the crash, vital evidence was long gone. Witnesses were untraceable; the skid marks from which vehicle speed estimates could have been inferred were destroyed; the positions in the roadway of Heyworth and of clothing knocked from her by the impact were not recorded; and video recordings of the crash captured by surveillance cameras at nearby establishments had been erased, because the owners were never told to preserve them. In fact, no photos of the crash scene were taken at all.

"Taking pictures and measurements at a crash scene is critical," says Stevens's attorney Steve Vaccaro. "These allow investigators to reconstruct how the crash occurred." Unfortunately, Vaccaro says, "the 911 print-out of the radio communication shows that the AIS investigation was canceled an hour and nine minutes after the crash. It also shows that officers at scene thought AIS should be involved, but they were overruled. The NYPD will say cops at the scene did do an investigation, but that's really just a report, not an investigation. There is a list of things the NYPD is supposed to do in an investigation." But if the understaffed AIS doesn't show up, these things never happen.

In 2011, AIS conducted only 304 investigations, 241 of which involved fatalities, which means only 63 cases involving non-fatal serious injuries were investigated by AIS. Councilmember Peter Vallone has called for increased funding for the NYPD to beef up the AIS, which currently operates with a staff of 19. On many late nights, there is often only one or two investigators working. We asked Vallone if he's seen any improvements since a contentious City Council hearing in February, and he told us, "It's too soon to say. I share the concerns of Clara's husband. We heard from many people at our hearing who were very dissatisfied with the way these investigations were conducted. Most of us agreed the AIS had to be changed. For me, a former prosecutor, there is no difference between someone who backs through an intersection at 30 mph and breaks somebody's ankle and someone who backs through an intersection at 30 mph and kills a senior citizen.

"See, the conduct is exactly the same, and it makes no sense to me for have one be investigated while the other one goes scot-free. I think many in the police department probably agree. The problem is that they had to set these parameters because of a lack of resources. They basically drew a line someplace because they didn't have the manpower to get out and investigate anymore than cases involving likely to die or deaths. The number one thing that has to happen is that this unit has to be expanded. As far as I know, it has not been yet."

061112stevens.jpg
(Courtesy Jacob Stevens)

The city's failure to fully investigate and prosecute drivers involved in serious and fatal accidents has drawn increased criticism, gaining momentum in the wake of cyclist Mathieu Lefevre's death in Williamsburg last October. (No criminal charges were filed against the hit-and-run truck driver who killed Lefevere, and his family has sued the NYPD for withholding information about the investigation.) Asked about the perception that police treat traffic deaths less seriously than, say, shootings, former Brooklyn Prosecutor Maureen McCormick tells the Times, "Even in the prosecutor’s office, you have what I call murder snobs."

Stevens's lawsuit, which is being filed this morning, seeks compensatory damages from Webb and the city, and alleges that the NYPD's investigative failure is systemic. Stevens tells us, "I'm suing NYPD because I think that their policy of not investigating most road injuries and many deaths is inhumane and illegal, and my hope is that the lawsuit will contribute to changing this policy. I hope that there is a full hearing in court, so that we can have a public discussion of this policy and how it worked in Clara's case—once more people understand NYPD's policy, I think there will be more pressure to change it."

There's a rally at City Hall this morning to announce the lawsuit, and groups such as Transportation Alternatives are calling on NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly "to change the NYPD’s policies and procedures in order to guarantee justice for New Yorkers who suffer from traffic violence." At this morning's rally, Stevens intends to read this statement, which we're publishing here in its entirety:

Last July, my wife Clara was killed by a driver here in New York City. She was 28 years old, and we had been married for just under two years. If it were simply a matter of her tragic death, I would be grieving in private rather than speaking on the steps of City Hall. I’m here because New York City Police Department is legally required to investigate traffic accidents if there is a serious injury, but their current policy is not to do so. They cancelled their investigation into the crash that killed Clara that very night, destroying crucial evidence, and they’ve also failed to investigate hundreds of other similar cases. That is why I’m suing NYPD this morning—in Clara’s name, but also for others who have been affected by this inhumane policy, and for the many more who will be in the future. I hope that by explaining what happened in this case, now and in court, we can help to change the way that NYPD treats the residents of this city.

Clara and I loved Brooklyn, and had lived in a close-knit community in Fort Greene for four years. We worked together in book publishing, and we were looking forward to raising a family in New York. But on July 10, a driver killed Clara while she crossed the road towards me. The driver had been drinking, and he didn’t have a valid driving license. I can still hear the screech of his brakes and the sound of the impact, and my friends saw the tire marks that he left all over the road. Police responded to the scene, and said that the driver was intoxicated and that Clara was likely to die. A Fire Department ambulance took her to Bellevue Hospital. Just one hour later, NYPD’s Accident Investigations Squad cancelled their investigation, without even coming to the scene, and the driver was released and given his car back later that night.

The neurosurgeons at Bellevue performed a series of heroic operations to try and save her life, but all of us who were at the scene knew that there wasn’t much hope. Clara died of her injuries the following day, having never regained consciousness. The hospital then held Clara’s body for a full autopsy, because they thought there was an ongoing criminal investigation into her death.

That night I lost the love of my life, and the basis for all of my plans and dreams for the future. Like the doctors at Bellevue, I tried to do what was expected of me after a tragedy: helping to arrange a funeral and a wake, and talking to friends and colleagues about who we’d lost.

One of the things that I expected—that all of us have a right to expect, as residents of this city—was that a violent death would be investigated, so that we could work out what really happened and who was responsible. I, and our friends and family, thought that the police would go to the scene of Clara’s death, take photographs, check surveillance cameras, and look for witnesses. We thought the driver was still in custody, that his car had been impounded, and that he would be tested for drugs and alcohol.

The New York Police Department did none of those things. Not one. The Accident Investigations Squad cancelled their investigation of the crash just one hour after it had happened—without even coming to the scene. The driver was released, without any blood tests or properly calibrated breath tests, and given his car back. The scene wasn’t photographed. The tire marks on the road that told the story of the driver’s speed and recklessness faded away, unrecorded. A video recording made by a local business, which probablycaptured the crash, was erased because its owner hadn’t been notified. Nobody knocked on the doors of the neighboring apartments to find witnesses.

All of this evidence was destroyed within a few days, because of the decision that night by the Accident Investigations Squad. That decision was in direct contravention of the law, and of their professional responsibilities. I thought that I lived in a city where violent deaths would be investigated—but it turns out that I was wrong. None of us do. I had also thought that persons who kill recklessly would be prosecuted for their crime. Instead, in February of this year, the DA’s office told me that all criminal charges against the driver would be dropped. He will get a slap on the wrist—a traffic violation, for driving without a license.

I’m not here today because of the driver that killed Clara. I’ll probably never know why he got into his car that night, and drove as he did. I’m here because I want to know why there was no real investigation, and why no one has been held responsible for the lack of that investigation. If someone dies, suddenly and violently, we have a right to know what happened. There needs to be a professional and timely investigation, as there is after a shooting. If it were your son or daughter, or friend or partner, you would want to know what had happened.

NYPD made a conscious decision not to investigate the scene of Clara’s death. And we know that this wasn’t an isolated incident—it fits a pattern. There have been many other cases, some represented by my lawyer, Steve Vaccaro, and some of whom are represented here today by their loved ones. Transportation Alternatives, who arranged this event, have been arguing for many years that NYPD need to change their practices, to properly investigate serious injuries and deaths on the road—so far to no avail.

We’re often told that violent crime in this city is falling. But this violent killing, which took Clara from me, is not a part of those statistics—and that is a direct result of the cancelled investigation and the destruction of crucial evidence. Perhaps it is in some people’s interests to under-report violent crime, but that isn’t the city that I want to live in.

I’m here today to get Mayor Bloomberg’s attention—by bringing a civil suit against NYPD as well as the driver. This isn’t about vengeance, or even about justice, since nothing can do justice to our loss of Clara. I’m here because we have a right to know what happens in our city. We’re all affected by violent deaths in our community. I think that we have a right to a police force that investigates the crimes that we want solved. And this is about holding our elected representatives to account, so that in the future we can reclaim our city and play a role in shaping it.

Today I’m asking for the City to hear me out, in court, and answer my case—and I’m asking all of you for your help in making this happen. Please report this case, contact your representatives, and try to hold them accountable. Please also find out about Transportation Alternatives, sign up, and support the measures that they are recommending. Thank you.

Stevens Lawsuit