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State v. Lee

May 27, 1997


Appeal from Superior Court of King County. Docket No: 95-1-04980-6. Date filed: 02/26/96.

Authored by Walter E. Webster. Concurring: C. Kenneth Grosse, Mary K. Becker.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Webster

WEBSTER, J. -- Having been convicted for vehicular homicide, Christopher Lee appeals the trial court's finding that the prosecution established the corpus delicti so as to allow the jury to consider his inculpatory statements. Yet an officer who promptly investigated the accident found Lee standing next to the passenger side of the vehicle, trying to pull his injured girlfriend out. Lee had blood on his head, and a broken arm, both consistent with being in an accident. And because of the damage to the car, his girlfriend could not have moved or been moved from the driver's seat to the passenger side. Finally, a reconstruction expert testified that the passenger in the accident would have suffered much more severe injuries than the driver. Consequently, the prosecution presented sufficient evidence from which a person could infer that Lee was the driver. As a result, the trial court properly allowed the jury to consider Lee's numerous admissions that he drove the car, but crashed because he was under the influence of methamphetamine. We affirm the judgment and sentence.


Some time after Christopher Lee ingested substantial amounts of methamphetamine, he drove Diane Pierce's pickup truck from a Safeway store towards his home. Pierce was asleep in the front passenger seat. Lee, speeding along at 65 mph, was coming down off of the methamphetamine when he fell asleep at the wheel. The car careened into a telephone pole, with the passenger side absorbing the direct impact. The truck's top was bent down, and the passenger side front collapsed in.

King County Police Officer Christian arrived approximately six minutes after the accident. Lee, bleeding from the head, and with a fractured arm, was standing next to the passenger side of a pickup, leaning in and trying to pull Pierce out. Pierce's head slightly slumped over towards the middle. *fn1 She had extensive face and head injuries. Lee was mumbling "I killed her." When Christian ordered Lee to stop pulling on Pierce, Lee refused to step away, and charged Christian. Christian kicked him, yelled at him, and Lee finally stopped.

When another officer arrived, he placed Lee under arrest for driving while intoxicated and gave him his Miranda warnings. *fn2 Lee responded that he was not drunk, and that it must have been the crank (slang for methamphetamine). A Washington State Patrol Officer later reiterated Lee's rights, after which Lee revealed that he had done four "big long, fat lines" of crank. *fn3 After Lee was taken to the hospital, he was again advised of his rights, but did not refuse to talk with the officers. At the hospital, tests showed Lee's blood level of methamphetamine to be substantial; he also told Pierce's mother, who had come to be with her daughter, that he guessed he should have known better than to drive with drugs in his body. Tragically, Pierce died one week later as a result of her head injuries.

Lee subsequently agreed to a tape recorded interview with a state patrol detective. He admitted to being the pickup's driver and to have been coming down off crank at the time of the accident. Expert trial testimony about that drug explained that users experience increased sensitivity to light, confusion, paranoia, hallucinations, and may suffer extreme drowsiness and fatigue when coming down.

The state charged Lee with vehicular homicide and the jury convicted him.


Independent Corroboration of Lee's Admission

Lee argues that insufficient independent proof corroborated his admission to being the driver of the car.

The corpus delicti rule protects defendants from the possibility of an unjust conviction based upon a false confession alone. *fn4 When the crime is vehicular homicide, the rule requires that independent corroborating evidence be presented before the trier of fact can consider the defendant's confession. *fn5 That evidence must, on a prima facie level, show (1) the victim's death, (2) a person's criminal act as a cause, and (3) the identity of the person perpetrating the criminal act. *fn6 Identity is a prerequisite because the corpus delicti of vehicular homicide can only be proved by establishing someone's criminal agency and that in turn requires identification of a particular individual driving with disregard, recklessly, or under the influence. *fn7 Yet as to identity, "prima facie" means only evidence of sufficient circumstances that would support a logical and reasonable inference that the defendant was driving or in actual physical control of the vehicle. *fn8

Lee focuses on that third element, alleging that the state did not introduce prima facie evidence that would support an inference that he was driving the car at the time of the accident. And he particularly relies on State v. Hamrick. *fn9 In that DUI case, a state trooper investigating a two car accident found a pickup in a ditch south of the road and another car 200 feet west. The trooper contacted Hamrick in the center of the road, and was unable to ascertain whether Hamrick owned either vehicle. The trooper found someone in one car. The court held this ...

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