The Nevada Supreme Court on Tuesday questioned why prosecutors in Las Vegas have decided to charge some DUI suspects with murder, evoking commentary on whether race and wealth played a role.
Near the end of arguments in the case of Ronald Leavell, who is appealing a second-degree murder charge in a fatal 2017 crash, Justice Lidia Stiglich alluded to DUI charges against Scott Gragson, a Las Vegas affluent real estate broker.
Deputy Public Defender David Westbrook, who represents Leavell, suggested prosecutors were not treating DUI cases objectively.
“That’s how you get stuff like poor, African American Ronald Leavell rotting in a jail for almost three years pre-trial, being charged with second-degree murder, and rich, Scott Gragson not being charged with second-degree murder,” Westbrook said. “The Scott Gragson question has not been answered, and it cannot be answered. Because the answer is ‘we like to do what we want.’ That is the antithesis of our justice system, and it cannot be allowed.”
Deputy District Attorney Thomas Moskal said prosecutors had discussed whether to charge Gragson with second-degree murder.
“The facts of Gragson, if we want to get into it here, is it was a two-second course of conduct where he floored something, and then there was a collision,” Moskal said.
Justice Abbi Silver pointed to similarities in the wrecks involving Gragson and Leavell.
Gragson, who is white, pleaded guilty in February to one count of DUI resulting in death and one count of DUI resulting in substantial bodily harm in a wreck at The Ridges in Summerlin. He is free on bail while awaiting sentencing.
Prosecutors have said Gragson was driving over 80 mph before he slammed into a tree, killing Melissa Newton, a mother of three, and injuring three others in his vehicle.
Leavell, now free on house arrest while awaiting trial, is accused of causing a crash that killed Gerardo Villicana Jr., 26. Authorities said Leavell was high on marijuana and speeding, traveling between 70 and 142 mph through another residential neighborhood.
“How is that different?” Silver asked. “It’s just as dangerous to anybody out there, and here (in Gragson’s case) you have multiple victims, and he wasn’t charged with murder in the second degree. How do you reconcile two seconds of any collision?”
Instead of re-examining the comparison, Moskal pivoted to another case in which a woman pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in a 2018 fatal crash.
“It’s the course of conduct that’s elongated here,” Moskal said. “Technology in cars is increasing rapidly. Cars can go 0 to 60 in two seconds now … Imagine three years from now. Imagine 10 years from now. This is not 1985. We need to have a public deterrence effect in place.”
This year, Senior Judge Michael Cherry, a former Nevada Supreme Court justice, threw out a second-degree murder charge against a man who admitted to police that he drank before he drove 115 mph and slammed into another car, killing the couple inside.
Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson has said that charging a motorist who engages in reckless behavior behind the wheel and kills someone with second-degree murder is not barred by law.
In a November order, the high court wrote that Leavell’s appeal raised “significant questions of statutory interpretation.” The justices did not indicate Tuesday how quickly they would rule on his case.