Phillip Hanners Jr. of LaGrange pleaded no-contest to driving 14 mph over the 55 mph speed limit and guilty to driving on the wrong side of the road. A 12-month jail term was suspended on the condition that he pay fines totaling $1,512, complete a driver-improvement course, perform 10 days of community service, not drive for 180 days except for essential reasons and not violate any state laws for a year.
Hanners, 42, entered a plea agreement with Coweta County State Court Solicitor-General Robert Stokely, who was appointed as special prosecutor after the Troup County solicitor’s office recused itself. Troup State Court Judge Jeannette Little also recused herself and arranged for Andy Prather, a state court judge in Columbus, to hear the case.
The accident victims, Robert and Gayle Hendrix of Bass Cross Road, said they don’t believe justice was served in the case.
“We feel that Mr. Hanners has been given special consideration of his actions because he is a Georgia state trooper,” Gayle Hendrix told Prather in a written statement. “The law is the law and should be the same for everyone.”
Stokely denied any favoritism, saying, “It’s ridiculous to think I would risk my reputation and career to cover for Phillip Hanners. What’s in it for me?”
The Hendrix couple were northbound on Hogansville Road on the evening of Aug. 27 when Hanners’ southbound patrol car veered into their lane and hit the left rear wheel of the van, which overturned several times. The patrol car hit a pine tree.
Hanners suffered a concussion and other injuries. Gayle Hendrix said she received lacerations to her right arm and hand, and her husband received a fractured vertebrae, which caused permanent nerve damage to his left forefinger and limited mobility in his neck, permanent injury to the left side of his brain, a head injury that required plastic surgery and a broken thumb.
“We have suffered both physically, financially and mentally,” she said. “The trauma of the accident has caused many emotions, confusion, shock, anger and depression.”
Hanners and his attorney, Robert Perkerson of Zebulon, didn’t say anything at Monday’s hearing and declined comment afterward.
Gayle Hendrix said she believes Hanners fell asleep at the wheel, which would explain why the patrol car was in the wrong lane going 87 mph at impact.
“If Robert had not turned the wheel of our vehicle … there would have been a head-on collision” and everyone would have died, she said.
Stokely said a computer in the patrol car records speed only at intervals and it can be said only that he was driving at least in the 60s at impact. In addition, a witness driving behind the patrol car said it didn’t appear he was going much beyond the speed limit, Stokely said.
Stokely said Hanners told him he took Ambien at his last traffic stop a few minutes before the accident, but has no memory of the accident itself.
“He said it usually took hours to work if at all and that was the reason he took Ambien when he did,” Stokely said. “… He was just about to go off duty. He said he would have been home in 10 minutes if the wreck had not happened.”
He said he doesn’t believe Hanners fell asleep because he appeared alert on the patrol car’s video at the last traffic stop. He said experts told him that Ambien generally takes 30 to 40 minutes to produce sleep, but Gayle Hendrix said her research showed the drug can cause a hypnotic effect after 15 minutes or less.
Stokely said “a number of things” could have caused the accident.
“He could have dropped something or he was fooling with the radio or was distracted by something on the side of the road,” Stokely said. “He was too alert moments before to have fallen asleep.”
A grand jury declined to indict Hanners on two other charges that it was asked to consider: driving too fast for conditions and criminal negligence, which described Hanners taken Ambien as a “willful, wanton and reckless disregard for the safety of other who might reasonably be expected to be injured thereby.”
Peter Alford, the Hendrix couple’s attorney, said Stokely could have gotten a DUI or felony charge out of the grand jury.
“You get the results you want from a grand jury,” Alford said. “They return bills of indictment for what the prosecutor wants. That’s just the way it goes. I don’t quite understand why he didn’t prosecute him for the Ambien.”
But he said Stokely is a friend who is “just as good as they come. I honestly feel he did what he believes was right.” Hanners also is a fine person, he said, but “sometimes great people make bad decisions. Certainly that’s what happened here.”
Stokely said the mere presence of Ambien in a person’s bloodstream doesn’t prove impairment as required for a DUI conviction. A review of the video from Hanners’ last traffic stop doesn’t show impairment, he said.
Gayle Hendrix said Stokely had told her family, “We have to be careful how we handle the case because we could ruin his career.” Stokely defended the statement, saying a trooper would be more affected by criminal charges than people in most other occupations.
“I said we should take our time because the charges have ramifications that are different for him than other people,” he said. “I told them I had no qualms about prosecuting a police officer.”
The Hendrixes filed a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Public Safety, which has admitted liability, and a trial is scheduled for May to determine any monetary damages, Gayle Hendrix said.
Hanners was demoted from trooper first class to radio operator because of the accident.
Joel Martin can be reached at jmartin@ lagrangenews.com or (706) 884-7311, Ext. 235.