Driver guilty of murder in Kzoo cycling tragedy

Kalamazoo and Battle Creek

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — A driver was found guilty Tuesday of all 14 counts against him, including second-degree murder, in the 2016 Kalamazoo cycling tragedy.

Charles Pickett Jr. was convicted of five counts of second-degree murder, five counts of operating while intoxicated causing death and four counts of operating while intoxicated causing serious injury.

Pickett was stoic as the verdict was announced around 4:40 p.m. Meanwhile, one juror fought back tears. In the gallery, one of the survivors of the cycling crash covered her face and cried.

“Justice has been served in this case,” Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Getting said outside the courthouse later.

Sentencing is scheduled for June 11. The murder charges are punishable by up to life in prison, each charge of OWI causing death can carry up to 15 years and the OWI causing serious injury charges are punishable by up to five years each.

“Ultimately, Judge (Paul) Bridenstine will have the discretion to impose a sentence that serves justice,” Getting said. 

Debbie Bradley, Melissa Fevig-Hughes, Tony Nelson, Larry Paulik and Suzanne Sippel were killed when Pickett drove his pickup truck in to a group of bicyclists on Westnedge Avenue in Cooper Township, north of Kalamazoo, on June 7, 2016.

“The families (of the victims) are about as relieved as you can get,” Kalamazoo County Assistant Prosecutor Michael Kanaby, who tried the case, told reporters outside the courtroom. “It’s been a long process for them. I have to take my hat off to them. They have been outstanding. … They were pretty much hands off and trusted us to do what we needed to do, which was amazing with all that was going on and how long the process took to get here.”

For Guy Hughes, the husband of crash victim Melissa Fevig-Hughes, the verdict is a relief but not the answer.

“I thought it would feel like justice, but not having Melissa here with us and my two daughters not having a mom, it just takes away from that. I feel justice was served, but it won’t bring her back,” he said.

Hughes wants Pickett to spend the rest of his life in prison.

JUROR: GUILTY BECAUSE HE DIDN’T STOP

Jurors deliberated for less than four hours after attorneys for both sides summarized their arguments. The prosecution started its closing argument with video of Pickett in an ambulance shortly after he drove his truck into a pack of cyclists. Kanaby said Pickett was clearly intoxicated during the incident.

“There is a fundamental premise in this case: Mr. Pickett clearly was intoxicated. He was intoxicated by a controlled substance or combination of,” Kanaby told the jury.

A friend of Pickett’s testified last week that he took a handful of pills before the crash. An expert said there were painkillers, muscle relaxers and meth in his system. Emergency responders testified Pickett was “very out of it” after the crash and seemed not to remember what happened.

Pickett’s attorney, who never denied Pickett was behind the wheel during the crash, argued that intoxication alone shouldn’t be enough to convict Pickett of second-degree murder.

“One of the most difficult that charges that we have to prove is the difference between a drunk driving causing death and second-degree murder. You throw in there the lesser offense of involuntary manslaughter and it gets complicated,” Kanaby said. “There’s a lot of jury instructions that go there and some of what came back today, a couple of the questions, dealt with the language on some of those jury instructions.”

Jury foreman Nick Meisling told reporters that his fellow jurors reached an agreement pretty quickly.

“Mr. Pickett had several opportunities to stop and pull over and he chose to keep going, which obviously resulted in the death of five people, which is why we came to our verdict,” Meisling said.

“Because he was on drugs doesn’t mean anything,” crash survivor Paul Runnels said. “He diminished his capacity by his own choices. It’s really just a matter of I think the jury hearing the facts and making decisions based on facts. I’m very happy they weren’t confused by defense’s closing arguments, which I found very confusing myself.”

Kanaby said he felt “vindicated” by the across-the-board guilty verdicts.

“I just wanted to bring that home for the families,” he said.

Paul Gobble was among the four people injured in the crash, suffering a broken leg, broken rib, four broken vertebrae in the back and two in the neck, and traumatic brain injury. But he and other members of the group that was hit, called The Chain Gang, are back on their bikes. On Tuesday evening, they rode virtually the same route they took the day of the crash.

“The truth is the fact that we were on our bikes had nothing to do with that incident. The minute he took that handful of pills, took that truck out of the parking lot, there was going to be a crash and someone was going to get killed,” Gobble said.

He said he wants Pickett’s sentence to send a message, though it wouldn’t necessarily have to be a life sentence.

“For him to put the families through what he’s done and express no remorse has been difficult and that (remorse) is what I’d like to hear,” he said.

—24 Hour News 8’s Barton Deiters contributed to this report.

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