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Justice lacking in road rage murder charge

The Chicago Sun-times: Justice lacking in road rage murder charge

Prosecutors protect instigator as ’witness’ instead of criminal

December 29, 2009
BY MARY MITCHELL Sun-Times Columnist

The case against Tyrice Pryor raises questions about what constitutes justice in Cook County.
Pryor was charged with first-degree murder for the death of Jepson Livingston, the bicyclist who was killed on a North Side street.

Prosecutors allege that Pryor intentionally caused the events that led to Livingston’s death even though the other driver was the instigator of the altercation.

The second driver has admitted breaking Pryor’s car windows earlier in the day, and confronting him in a parking lot.

Still, a spokesman for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office called the second driver a "witness" to the murder.

Livingston’s death was as senseless as it was tragic.

He was an innocent bystander, caught between two men whose behavior endangered everyone in their path.

But for prosecutors to protect someone who sets off a road rage incident as a "witness" rather than to treat him as a perpetrator, makes me wonder what happened to the concept of justice.

Last week, I used the Pryor case to illustrate how personal disagreements can spiral out of control.

I said then that I thought the second driver should also be charged in connection with Livingston’s death.

Since then, I’ve heard from Pryor’s brother, Kenneth Pryor.

Kenneth works at the Chicago Sun-Times’ printing plant.

While he values his job and his privacy, he told me he can’t sit silently as his younger brother takes the fall when both drivers were responsible.

"I can’t understand it," Kenneth Pryor said. "He broke out the windows. Then he saw my brother’s van at the currency exchange parking lot and they had words, and he started using his vehicle as a weapon."

I am not disclosing the name of the second driver because he has not been charged with a crime.

Prosecutors agree that the unnamed driver hit Pryor’s vehicle first, but said the man then tried to drive away and Pryor hit him from behind.

Still, a lot of fair-minded people are likely to be bothered by the fact that the driver whose behavior triggered the road rage incident will not be held accountable.

Although having this driver testify against Pryor at trial may increase the chances of a conviction, his cooperation also raises questions about fairness.

Both of these young men were reckless. Both men should be punished.

And as horrible as these events are, Pryor’s actions don’t seem as heinous as those of the allegedly drunken Lockport police officer accused of killing Mike Wong.

Eddie Stapinski is accused of going 80 mph when he struck and killed Wong. Prosecutors say his blood alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit.

Yet Stapinski wasn’t charged with first-degree murder. He was charged with reckless homicide and aggravated DUI.

Where is the justice in that?

If a police officer gets drunk, climbs behind the wheel, and launches his car into oncoming traffic, and prosecutors charge him with reckless homicide, then I don’t know how they can justify charging Pryor with first-degree murder.

"When we told him that he was in jail for murder, my brother didn’t know he had hit someone," Kenneth Pryor told me.

"He didn’t know he was charged with murder until he went to court. All he knew is that he crashed the van and he jumped out and ran.

A videotape of the crash scene showed people walking away from one of the vans.

But Pryor said that van was not the one that was driven by his brother but by the unnamed second driver.

A spokesman for the Cook County state’s attorney said the office did not identify the van in the videotape.

Because Tyrice Pryor cannot pay for a defense attorney, and has juvenile blemishes on his record, Kenneth worries that his brother will be convicted on these extreme charges.

Like the relatives of other young people who are caught in this trap, Kenneth is stunned to realize how unjust the justice system can be.

"How do you take the [second driver] out of the equation? How do you take this person and make him the victim?" he asked, his voice choking with emotion.

"Whatever my brother did, he has to pay for it. But there has to be justice for everybody."