After crash, Bieri's daughter wins struggle to clear name

| 04 Oct 2012 | 01:29

– For the two drivers at the intersection of Route 23 and Cross Road the night of Feb. 5, 2011, the high-speed crash lasted mere fractions of a second. The steel plating of both cars crunched and curled, glass shattered and airbags burst.
Keith Babcock, who was behind the wheel of one of the cars involved, was released a short time after he was taken to the hospital. His wife, Sandra Babcock, who is a cancer survivor, sustained broken ribs and backbone and a lacerated spleen, according to published reports.
But for Dominique Bieri, whose car came to rest after severing an electrical pole, the impact the crash had on her health stretched on for months and the damaging toll it might have had on her reputation threatened to follow her for a lifetime.

The legal process begins

In the days after the accident while Dominique lay in a coma, Bettina Bieri, the mayor of West Milford Township, received a summons from police charging her daughter with drunk driving. A grand jury was later called to consider handing down an added indictment against Dominique for criminal assault by auto.
A blood test taken after Dominique arrived in the hospital showed her blood-alcohol level to be .04 percent, well under New Jersey’s limit of .08.
“A blood test was rightfully administered to the 22-year-old driver, my daughter,” Bieri said, recounting the incident. “I was always thankful for that test, because I believe in taking responsibility for your own actions but I also believe in being innocent until proven guilty. I also knew that test would prove her innocence.”
Despite the alcohol content of Dominique’s blood coming in under the legal limit, Passaic County Prosecutors followed through with a grand jury investigation to decide if a criminal charge of assault should be brought against Dominique.
Assault by auto would require proof of intentional disregard for human safety, Bieri said.
After hearing testimony from an eyewitness who testified that Dominique was not driving erratically or speeding, the grand jury ruled out the assault charge, Bieri said. But the DWI charge still had to dealt with.
“The DWI could not be heard in court until the investigations were completed and the grand jury made their findings,” Bieri said.

Tongues wagged

Responders at the scene of the accident reported smelling an odor of alcohol on Dominique, giving police probable cause to test her blood for alcohol. Because there was no such evidence to support probable cause, Babcock’s blood was not tested, despite the serious injuries that resulted.
“In New Jersey you need probable cause,” said Sumana Mitra, a senior assistant Passaic County prosecutor who specializes in motor vehicle crimes. “In cases of serious bodily injury or death, we like to get a call (from police), but there is no state statute like there is in New York, to take the blood,” she said.
Reaction by the media following news of Dominique’s charge played up the possibility that the mayor’s daughter may face serious repercussions after the accident, Bieri said.
“People wrongfully assumed she was partying, yet nobody ever asked where she was that Saturday evening,” Bieri said. The 22-year old was not out partying but at a dinner party with middle-aged friends of her family, she said.
The incident proved to be grist of small town West Milford politics from the beginning. It was a mayoral election year and Bieri was facing a challenge from a longtime councilman and ambulance corp volunteer. As the charges lingered and the case went unresolved, people raised questions: Was the mayor using her influence to protect her daughter? Was her daughter being targeted because it was an election year? Why was it taking so long? And why possibly a criminal indictment?

Why did it taking so long?

Robert Pringle, the Passaic County senior assistant prosecutor who pressed the state’s case against Dominique, said that the charges against Dominique were taken all the way to a grand jury in order to avoid rumors of bias against the justice system.
“She is the daughter of the mayor,” Pringle said, “People were hurt. If all of a sudden, that just disappeared — how would that have looked?”
Despite the low level of alcohol in Dominique's system, the state never backed down from the charge, but instead pursued them fully so that a jury would decide the matter, he said.
“If the case wasn’t about the mayor’s daughter then it probably wouldn’t have made it to the grand jury,” he said. “Could she have been deemed reckless? Maybe, but who sorts these things out? The people,” he said.

Recovering reputation and health

Dominique gradually emerged from her coma, briefly waking in five-minute flashes and then blacking out again, Bieri said.
Though she had her seatbelt on during the crash, the force of the impact violently shook her head from side to side, causing her brain to repeatedly and forcefully hit the sides of her skull.
“As a result of her traumatic brain injury, the left side of her body was somewhat immobile, she had no short-term memory,” Bieri said of her daughter. “Initially, she could not dress herself, recall recent events or even her own age, do a simple word search or even first grade math.”
Dominique was transferred to the Kessler Rehabilitation center in Chester, where daily exercises tested the limits of her mental and physical abilities. Paralyzed nerves led to skewed vision, causing her to perceive two of everything. The paralysis made simple tasks like walking or opening an envelope challenging, said Bieri.
In the months following the collision, Dominique worked to recover her motor functions, memory and personality, and summoned her returning strength to reverse the charges against her.
Still managing her comeback, Dominique is approaching a complete recovery of her health and good name.
“Towards the end of my out-patient therapy, my recovery suddenly began improving exponentially. My brain had healed enough that I began to understand the severity of my injuries and the impact they had on me and everyone around me,” Dominique said. “By the time I was ready to leave outpatient therapy, I had regained 90 percent of my mentality and personality.”

Lost faith

It took one year, three court hearings and over $10,000 in attorney fees, but the Bieris finally succeeded in getting the DWI charge dismissed, based largely on Dominique’s low blood-alcohol level, Bieri said.
In August, a judge ruled Dominique had failed to observe a traffic signal, initiating the crash that not only injured her, but seriously injured Sandra Babcock as well.
Dominique pled guilty and paid a fine of $239, court records show.
Bieri said that the persistence of the charges, rumors and accusations that followed the legal handling of the accident left her wary of a legal system she once trusted.
“My faith in the legal system has been tainted by the whole process, which was my family’s first experience with any legal issue of this nature,” Bieri said. “We were quite certain that a DWI conviction, and even the DWI accusation, would negatively impact her future.”
Now in graduate school studying veterinary medicine, Dominique said she has no recollection of her experience of the crash.
“I have absolutely no memory of the specifics of my accident or most of my recovery and my therapy team confirmed that it is highly unlikely that I will ever remember that part of my life,” she said.

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