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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Gorsuch case tests the scales of justice

Telegraph Editorial

Three weeks ago, a Hillsborough County Superior Court judge ruled that the state Department of Safety’s decision to revoke the driver’s license of Michael Gorsuch in response to a fatal car crash that claimed the life of a close friend was “unjust at present.”

Based on our extensive coverage of this case since that tragic night nearly two years ago to the day, we can’t help but wonder whether it is unjust – period.

Gorsuch, you may recall, is the former Derry resident who was charged with negligent homicide for the death of Daniel Rodriguez, of Nashua, who was killed Oct. 29, 2007, after their speeding car spun off Thornton Road and crashed into some trees at about 12:30 a.m.

Just hours earlier, Gorsuch, then 29, and Rodriguez, then 27, had been drinking and celebrating at the Sky Lounge while watching the Red Sox sweep the Colorado Rockies in four games on their way to their second World Series championship in four years.

Nashua police believed Gorsuch was driving Rodriguez’s Toyota Scion tC that night and charged him with negligent homicide. But Hillsborough County prosecutors would drop that charge shortly before the trial after two accident reconstruction experts concluded – as Gorsuch had maintained all along – that Rodriguez was driving the vehicle when it crashed.

At the time, that appeared to be the final chapter in this sad story. Hector and Barbara Rodriguez had lost a son; Gabriel, 10, had lost a father; Michelle Cardoso had lost her fiance. And Gorsuch, fortunate to be alive, had lost a good friend and more than a year of his life trying to prove his innocence.

But wait.

Apparently not satisfied that justice had been done, New Hampshire State Police filed an administrative charge against Gorsuch, claiming that he was indeed driving at the time of the crash and moving to revoke his license for up to seven years.

The case was brought under a state law (RSA 263:56) that grants the state Department of Safety the authority to revoke or suspend an individual’s license if it determines that person has “by reckless or unlawful operation of motor vehicle caused or materially contributed to an accident resulting in death or injury to any other person or serious property damage,” among its other provisions.

The statute also makes clear that officials “shall not give weight to the lack of a criminal prosecution” when deciding whether to suspend or revoke the license of the accused.

That’s exactly what happened. In late July, Department of Safety hearings examiner Mark Seymour ruled the state had demonstrated through a “preponderance of the evidence” – a lesser standard of proof than required in criminal cases – that Gorsuch was behind the wheel the night of the fatal crash and revoked his license.

Gorsuch then filed an appeal in Hillsborough County Superior Court, asking that his lawyer be permitted to introduce the testimony of two other accident reconstruction experts who did not testify during the initial hearing.

Judge James Barry declined to hear that testimony, but he ordered the Department of Safety to reopen its hearing so that these experts could testify on Gorsuch’s behalf. A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for Nov. 3, at which point the scope and date of that hearing will be determined.

Regular readers of this space know that we rarely interject ourselves in the middle of ongoing judicial proceedings, preferring instead to wait until the final judgment is rendered.

But there does seem to be something patently unfair with the prospect of a man losing his license on the grounds he was behind the wheel of a fatal accident after prosecutors didn’t even feel they had enough evidence to make that case at trial.

That may not constitute double jeopardy in the pure legal sense of the term, but we certainly would understand if Gorsuch isn’t recognizing that distinction these days.