Deputy won't be charged in on-duty fatal crash

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX (AP) -- Prosecutors announced Wednesday that they will not bring criminal charges against a Maricopa County Sheriff's deputy for his part in a high-speed crash that killed a driver in December.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said at a news conference that Sheriff's Deputy Sean Pearce won't face a manslaughter charge in the Dec. 16 crash that killed 63-year-old John Harding. He said a vehicle that was turning ahead of the victim's vehicle blocked the view of the drivers involved in the crash.

Pearce is the son of former state Sen. Russell Pearce, one of Arizona's staunchest advocates for immigration enforcement. He was the author of the 2010 immigration crackdown known as SB1070 that became a major national political story and prompted a legal challenge that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The elder Pearce endorsed Montgomery's 2010 campaign to become Maricopa County's top prosecutor in 2010, but the prosecutor scoffed at the notion that politics had anything to do with his decision not to bring charges. "That's an amateurish analysis," Montgomery said.

Marc Victor, an attorney representing the Harding family, said he intends to ask prosecutors to reconsider the decision not to charge Pearce. "Anybody else who drove at that type of speed on that road at that time of day would be charged with reckless driving," Victor said.

Russell made brief comments about Wednesday's decision. "My heart breaks for that family," the former lawmaker said. "But Sean is not the bad guy. Sean was doing his job."

Police in Glendale had recommended that prosecutors charge Pearce with manslaughter. He was driving 81 mph moments before the crash in an unmarked vehicle with no sirens.

The T-bone crash at an intersection in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert occurred as Pearce was following a suspect in a homicide case who was on the move. Video of the crash shows Harding's vehicle moving slowly into the intersection as Pearce's unmarked SUV crushed the left side of Harding's vehicle.

Harding's family said the crash wouldn't have occurred had Pearce not been speeding. Pearce told investigators that Harding was looking in another direction as he pulled out into the intersection in front of the officer.

Sean Pearce, who suffered a minor hand injury in the December crash, told investigators that there was no traffic in front of him as drove down the road, but then he saw Harding's vehicle slowly crossing into the roadway, prompting the deputy to lock up his brakes. In the aftermath, Pearce ran to help Harding, who was barely breathing.

Last month, Harding's family filed a notice of claim - a precursor to a lawsuit - seeking $5 million from the county.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio applauded Montgomery's decision. "I am sure that he gave it a thorough review," Arpaio said.

In December 2004, Sean Pearce and another sheriff's deputy were wounded by a Mexican man who was in the country illegally when the officers were serving a search warrant in a homicide case. Pearce was shot in the abdomen shortly after officers entered the trailer, while another officer who stepped up to cover Pearce was shot in the hand.

Authorities say Jorge Luis Guerra-Vargas, now 31 years old and serving a 51-year sentence for wounding the officers, told authorities that he fired shots because he thought someone was breaking into the trailer and didn't realize they were officers. Authorities say the officers announced their presence in English and Spanish before entering. Guerra-Vargas was shot by another deputy during the exchange of gunfire.

The elder Pearce has rejected claims that his tough views on immigration enforcement were motivated by his son's injuries during the 2004 shooting. He has said in the past that his held those opinions before his son was shot, insisting his frustrations centered more broadly on the crime that immigrant smugglers bring into the country and the financial stress on communities from illegal immigration.


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