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Review of fatal West Anchorage car-bike collision finds no basis for criminal charges

Craig Medred
A ghost bike on Northern Lights Boulevard in West Anchorage where cyclist Eldridge Griffith was killed on Jan. 2, 2014.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News file photo

Sixty-five-year-old bicyclist Eldridge Griffith, a man who spent most of his life counseling kids who made errors of judgment, in January made an error of judgment that cost him his life on an Anchorage street.

Motorist Tj Justice, a man with a difficult and troubled past, happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time driving a little too fast. He killed Griffith.

Now, after eight months of investigation and much poking and prodding of Justice's life, authorities have revealed that a surveillance camera caught every second of what happened, and based on the videotape they believe Griffith's death to have been the result of a tragic and complicated accident.

In a six-page memorandum to Anchorage Police Department Investigator Steve Dunn, Assistant District Attorney Daniel Shorey sets out in detail why prosecutors have decided not to bring charges against Justice, although there was reason to believe his driving might have been impaired by ill health, prescription medication and marijuana.

"As for the THC level, as you are aware, Alaska (unlike other states like Washington, Montana and Nevada) lacks a per se DUI statute for THC levels in a driver’s blood. In other words, the mere presence of THC will not automatically lead to a conviction for DUI," Shorey wrote. "Instead, the evidence as a whole, including blood tests, erratic driving, and roadside sobriety test results, must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person was impaired."

Video of the scene does not appear to show Justice driving erratically, though it does indicate he was speeding, according to the letter. Justice might have been going as fast as 46 mph on the roadway posted at 35 mph, Shorey wrote, but "I do not believe that such speed is far enough removed from the speed other drivers maintain on that stretch of road to represent either reckless driving or excessive speeding."

What Shorey believes to be the root cause of the accident is a station wagon that momentarily hid Griffith from Justice's view.

At the time of the accident, the cyclist, according to an account of the video provided by Shorey, was trying to cross busy West Northern Lights Boulevard. He was near a driveway at the U.S. post office, on the north side of the street, and crossing to the south toward a Carrs-Safeway shopping center.

As the operator of what qualifies in the state of Alaska as a motor vehicle, the cyclist was legally qualified to cross the street in this manner. He was not jaywalking. But, indications are he wasn't paying enough attention to traffic either.

Griffith pulled into the road, according to the Shorey memo, at almost the same time as a station wagon pulled out of the post office driveway. Given that Northern Lights is a one-way street, it is possible the driver of the station wagon never saw Griffith on the right. Driver's pulling onto one-way streets often fail to look right to see what's there.

But it doesn't matter where the driver was looking, because, according to Shorey, Griffith had put himself in a position where he was legally required to yield to the station wagon.

"Traffic exiting from either side (of Northern Lights) must come to a complete stop and yield to Northern Lights traffic prior to entering the roadway," he wrote. "Griffith failed to yield to traffic entering Northern Lights to his left from the post office lot. His failure to yield to cross-traffic with the right-of-way resulted in his death. The legal issue for the State of Alaska to determine is whether or not Justice’s conduct rose to the level of a criminal offense."

Because Griffth failed to yield to the station wagon, Shorey wrote, the vehicle had to swing wide around him. Shorey told Alaska Dispatch News he couldn't tell from the video whether that slowed Griffith as he tried to cross the street or not.

But the attorney believes that what the station wagon certainly did do was shield Griffith from Justice's view.

"... Due to Griffith’s location in the road, (the station wagon) was forced to make a wide right turn to travel westbound on Northern Lights," his memo to APD notes. "At this point Griffith is in the far right lane and Justice is westbound in the middle lane near the bus stop.

"From the video it appears as if the vehicle turning westbound from the post office lot shields Justice’s view of Griffith as Justice approaches the scene of the collision."

Less than four seconds tick past between the time the station wagon goes around Griffith, and he is hit, according to the timestamp on the video.

"At 14:45:07:31 the wagon makes a wide turn around Griffith as Griffith pedals across Northern Lights," Shorey writes. "At 14:45:08:80 Justice’s Subaru in #2 (the middle) lane passes a vehicle adjacent to the bus stop outside the post office that is slowing down in the #3 (the far right) lane. At 14:45:09:08 the wagon completes its wide turn around Griffith and continues westbound (on) Northern Lights. At 14:45:09:58 Justice is in a position that one would expect he would first observe Griffith in the middle lane directly ahead of him. At 14:45:11:31 Justice has struck Griffith who is now airborne over the hood of the Subaru."

The 59-year-old Justice is a handicapped driver who in 2002 won a settlement of nearly $1.5 million in a lawsuit against Humana Hospital-Alaska, now Alaska Regional Hospital, as the result of an almost 30-year-old medical malpractice case that was reported to have left him "partially paralyzed."

"Neither standard field sobriety tests nor expanded drug recognition testing were conducted on Justice due to his pre-existing medical conditions and limited mobility," Shorey wrote. The lack of evidence gathered from such tests would make it difficult for prosecutors to later bring charges against Justice based solely on drugs found in his blood.

Shorey said Justice was cooperative with police who asked about his medical condition.

"Justice said he did not work due to a decades-old brain injury and that he drove to Costco on Dimond and was on his way home when the collision occurred," the report said. "Justice described driving westbound on Northern Lights when the car to his immediate right stopped suddenly. Justice said he struck the victim but neither saw the victim nor had an opportunity to stop. Justice described his medical conditions, prescribed medications and use of marijuana. Justice told police he smoked marijuana the night before going to bed at 10:00 pm and denied using marijuana after 10:00 pm."

The latter claim wasn't quite true, according to Shorey's letter.

"The drug testing revealed Justice had smoked marijuana that day," he wrote, but that doesn't mean it contributed to the accident.

"Given the lack of standardized field sobriety testing at the scene, Justice’s physical disabilities, Griffith entering the roadway against traffic and the absence of observed poor driving behavior prior to the collision the toxicologist would not opine that it was the impairing effects of the marijuana that caused Justice to fail to perceive Griffith in the roadway and avoid the bicyclist," the attorney wrote in summary.

"Given the strong video evidence in which one observes Griffith being shielded by the wagon turning right, the #3 lane vehicle stopping (apparently upon observing Griffith in the #3 lane) and Justice having less than 1.5 seconds to perceive and react to the cyclist, I cannot reach the conclusion that the collision was either Justice’s fault or that it was his drug use that created or enhanced the risk of a collision. Justice’s conduct does not rise to the level of failing to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the result will occur or that the circumstance exists.

"I cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Justice’s failure to perceive the risk of collision was a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation."

And because Justice was acting reasonably when he hit someone legally in the wrong, Justice is not legally responsible.

The accident is certain, however, to add ammunition to what has become a running debate between motorists and cyclists about the use of Anchorage roads. Had Griffith stopped in the middle of the post office driveway and blocked the car from pulling out into Northern Lights at the same time he did, he might have avoided the accident that cost him his life and left Justice's life forever changed.