Judge denies request to restore driving privileges of woman who caused fatal crashMichelle Wierson. Photo provided by the DeKalb County Sheriff's Office
This story has been updated.
The first day Leah Jenness saw the woman who killed her 5-year-old son was on Wednesday, Oct. 2.
Michelle Wierson was dressed in black and sitting in a courtroom with her attorneys who were asking a judge to modify her bond so she could drive again. That Wierson was driving her Volkswagen on Sept. 27, 2018 when she slammed into two vehicles on Midway Road at South Candler Street in Decatur is not in dispute. The crash critically injured 5-year-old Miles Jenness, a Winnona Park Kindergarten student.
What is in dispute is whether Wierson, a resident of Avondale Estates, was responsible for her actions that day. Was she “in the throes of a psychotic break” when she caused the crash, as her attorneys claim? Or is she using her mental illness as a way to avoid accountability for her actions, as the prosecution implied during the Oct. 2 hearing?
The question of whether Wierson is responsible for her actions wasn’t the subject of Wednesday’s hearing.
Wierson wanted to know if she could drive again, with her attorneys arguing that her inability to drive made it hard for her to take care of her daughter and earn a living as a psychologist.
Superior Court Judge Courtney Johnson decided the answer to that question was “no.”
“I don’t think at this point that allowing her to drive is a reasonable risk for this court to take and put others in the community at risk simply because she wants to work,” the judge told Wierson’s attorneys. “You indicated that she has job opportunities that she can’t take or hasn’t taken because she’s not driving. It just doesn’t seem to me to be necessary for her to drive. Driving is a privilege, not a right.”
Leah and her husband Sam Jenness cried when Judge Johnson made her decision. The ruling capped off an emotional hour for the Jenness family.
The hearing fell days after the anniversary of their son’s death. Fighting through tears during her statement at the hearing, Leah pleaded with the judge to reject Wierson’s request.
“There is no doubt in this case as to who killed my child,” she said. “It was Dr. Wierson.”
She said that one year ago, on the exact date of Wednesday’s hearing, she was writing her son’s obituary. She said the Oct. 2 hearing was the first day she had the opportunity to speak for Miles in a courtroom, and it wasn’t at Wierson’s trial. It was because of a hearing about Wierson’s request to drive again.
“I have wracked my brain as to why Dr. Wierson would ask for this now,” Leah Jenness said. “And no inconvenience I can invent is worth my son’s life. No hardship I can dream of is worth risking that what she did to my son could happen again. Lucky for Dr. Wierson, there are solutions to the inconvenience of not driving for the sake of protecting others. There are no solutions to a dead child.”
Wierson wiped away tears and covered her face during Leah Jenness’ testimony.
The courtroom audience was evenly split, with about two dozen of Wierson’s supporters sitting on one side of the room and two dozen supporters of the Jenness family sitting on the other side. The people who showed up in support of Leah and Sam Jenness wore big, round buttons with pictures of Miles Jenness.
The hearing also answered one of the lingering questions about the case. Wierson was indicted on charges of vehicular homicide, reckless driving, and battery. She has pleaded not guilty to those.
Wierson was not indicted on a charge of driving under the influence at the time of the crash. The DUI charge wasn’t presented to the grand jury. The affidavit in support of her arrest warrant alleges that Wierson was taking a combination of Ativan, Clonazepam (also known as Klonopin) and Seroquel at the time of the crash. Assistant District Attorney Josh Geller explained that the information about those drugs was provided by Wierson during a police interview, but that toxicology tests later showed the drugs were not in her system.
“During her lucid interview with Decatur Police, when she was not nonsensical, she reported a number of medications she that was taking, some of which were not prescribed,” Geller said. ” … When we got the crime lab report back report back, and the urine analysis from Grady, those substances were not in her system. Now we’re left with a situation with an individual who is supposed to be medicated and was not medicated at the time of the incident. There is not a crime in Georgia that you can charge somebody with [for] not taking their medication and going out and committing an acts of reckless driving and vehicular homicide.”
One of her attorneys, Bob Rubin, said that the absence of her prescribed medications in her system doesn’t mean she wasn’t taking her medication at the time of the crash, saying that there is a certain time frame that medications would show up in a drug test.
During the hearing, Rubin and Wierson’s other attorney, Corinne Mull,offered testimony from Wierson’s psychiatrist, William Mclarty. He’s been Wierson’s doctor since 2005 and explained that she has been diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. He said he’s been seeing her on a weekly basis during the last year. In his opinion, Wierson can drive and doesn’t need weekly appointments anymore.
“I think she’s competent to drive,” he said. “I think she is not experiencing any symptoms of mania, hypomania or depression, other than situational and reasonable depression given the situation, and also some stress. I think she’s compliant with her medications … she has had increased motivation since this has happened to make sure she does not experience any further psychosis. She’s well educated, very intelligent and very aware of her illness.”
Mull says on the day of her crash, her client believed that her daughter was in danger. She was “psychotic” when the collision occurred, Mull says. At the time of the incident, Mull said her client did not understand what had occurred.
Mclarty said if he thought his patient were a danger, he wouldn’t be testifying in support of her request to have her driving privileges restored.
Geller questioned Mclarty about whether Wierson had any other delusional episodes prior to the Sept. 27, 2018 crash.
“In the 14 years that you had been seeing Ms. Wierson prior to the accident, had she ever reported delusions to you before,” Geller asked.
“No,” Mclarty said.
“And you stated there was only one incident in 14 years where she had any manic episodes,” Geller asked.
“Yes,” Mclarty said.
During Geller’s questioning of Mclarty, the psychiatrist discussed the other current stressors in his client’s life. In addition to Wierson’s impending trial in this case, her father is also terminally ill. Following her arrest, she lost one job, Mclarty said.
“Her ability to work has also decreased somewhat because of the driving issue,” he said.
In a follow up, Mull noted that Wierson has two clients now.
“You can’t make a living on two clients, can you,” Mull asked.
“It’d be difficult,” Mclarty said.
Wierson is a licensed psychologist with the state of Georgia. She specializes in family therapy, with a focus on addiction in teens and parents. Records with the Secretary of State’s Office show her license was renewed on Dec. 20, 2018 and will expire in 2020.
Mull asked Mclarty if he needed to know what happened at the time of the crash to render an opinion on whether Wierson could drive.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think there were probably a lot of things that happened that afternoon that are not consistent with reality and they would all be consistent with psychosis, and I don’t need to know every one of them to know that she was psychotic, manic and actively ill from Bipolar I illness.”
Mclarty said that Wierson is “blessed” with a “strong support system” of people who help will monitor her behavior.
Geller said that no one in Wierson’s life tried to do something about her behavior prior to the crash.
“Now that she’s killed a five-year-old, we’re supposed to believe that she should be out on the road again because she has this support system here and she is taking her medication as prescribed,” Geller said. “I just think there’s too much unknown right now. Both sides of the story have not been told … I think it’s totally inappropriate for Ms. Wierson to drive a car at this point. I think it adds injury to insult as Mrs. Jenness stated that this is on the one-year anniversary of her son’s death.”
Later in the hearing, Rubin — Wierson’s attorney — said as a father he sympathizes with the Jenness family.
“It’s not adding insult to injury. It’s not an insult to ask the court to modify a bond condition,” Rubin said. “If we didn’t think Dr. Wierson were safe to drive, we wouldn’t be here.”
He said the Oct. 2 hearing was not to determine criminal responsibility in Miles Jenness’ death.
“Mr. Geller seems to be skeptical that a person can have a psychotic break in her mid-50s for the first time in her life,” Rubin said. “And we’ll satisfy that skepticism. I understand that. But if she wasn’t psychotic, then she’s clearly safe to drive. His argument is actually backwards. If she was not insane at the time of the incident, then there’s nothing preventing her from being safe to drive. If she were completely insane at the time of the incident, what has changed so that she’s safe to drive now? That seems to be the concern of the Jennesses and a concern that I can answer.
“The support that Dr. Wierson has had since December of 2018 to today is much different than the support she had back then. Mr. Geller is right, there were some people who interacted with Dr. Wierson back in September leading up to the accident on Sept. 27 that saw her mania, that saw her disorganized thinking, and then on the day of the incident is when she actually was delusional. They didn’t see that. But all these people in the courtroom that are here today, they’re the support system. No one wants this to happen again, least of all Dr. Wierson. This is not a case of a woman who was careless about her life and who just devil-may-care jumped in a car and set out to hurt somebody. Dr. Wierson is a parent of a child not that much different in age from Miles. She is the most motivated of everybody to do things right, to make sure she’s safe before she puts her child in a car, gets in a car or drives to a school, drives past a school, [or] does anything that would be dangerous to anybody.”
Rubin said for years Wierson functioned normally. On the three days before the crash, her ability to function was “compromised” by her mental illness.
“It’s an emotional case,” Rubin said. “These are the worst cases, these kinds of cases where we know someone died. We know someone died because Dr. Wierson was driving a car. The only issue is, why? Not who.”
Read more: Here is Leah Jenness’ full statement from the Oct. 2 hearing. The Jenness family made some minor edits to the statement following the hearing.
Thank you, Judge Johnson, for considering this matter today and for allowing me to speak on behalf of my son and our community.
One year and five days ago, my husband, Sam, picked up our five-year-old son, Miles, from Camp Scene. They came to the light at Midway Road and Candler Street and stopped there, waiting for it to flip from red to green. You can see our house from the light. They were seconds from home when Dr. Michele Wierson raced up the straightaway, slammed into the back of our car, and pushed it clear across Candler Street during busy rush-hour traffic and nearly into the ravine there.
When prosecutors and investigators finally have the opportunity, they will detail the facts of this case for you. I can tell you what I know: I know that you must take the turn on Midway Road slowly and carefully so as not to lose control of your car. I know that on the straightaway after that turn, you have a clear view of the stoplight and the cars waiting at it. I know that there were no tire marks that would show that Dr. Wierson swerved or braked in any attempt not to plow into our car. I have also seen the wreckage of our car, and the violence of the impact dropped me to my knees.
There is no doubt in this case as to who killed my child. It was Dr. Wierson. My understanding from her lawyers’ statements is that the case will be about whether she knew she shouldn’t have killed him. Because we have yet to have any headway into the actual trial or any objective assessments by experts, her attorneys’ opinions are all I have to go on as to why this happened. Based solely on what they have said publicly, Dr. Wierson supposedly has a condition that can render her not responsible for her actions in a snap, at any given moment, including behind the wheel. If her lawyers argue that the stress of ordinary life on that Thursday was enough to render Dr. Wierson incapable of safely operating a deadly machine like her car, what can be expected as the stress of the trial for killing our son approaches? Why now—now that we know Dr. Wierson is capable of killing our child and believes she need not be held responsible for that—is she more capable of driving than she was before? Why would we expose everyone on the road to this risk just because Dr. Wierson wants to drive?
Miles was our only child, and he was joy and love and imagination and silliness and dancing and blowing kisses and connecting. By more accounts than just mine, he was smart, and he was kind. If he was every quiet for a minute or two, I would ask him what he was thinking, and he’d always answer “I’m thinking about I love you.” He was my universe.
It was on this exact date last year, a few days after his death, that I was up at 3 a.m. writing my five-year-old son’s obituary. I couldn’t sleep because the idea of his body lying alone in the cold freezer of a morgue tortured me. His funeral was still four days away. Today, a year later, is the first day I’ve been able to speak for justice for Miles—and, in a cruel twist, this hearing is not for my five-year-old. I must limit myself in what I can speak about because we are all here today for Dr. Wierson—because she wants something, believes something is unfair to her. In fact, today is the first time I’ve had the small justice of finally seeing the person who killed my child, and it’s because she wants to drive again.
I have wracked my brain as to why Dr. Wierson would ask for this now. And no inconvenience I can invent is worth my son’s life. No hardship I can dream of is worth risking that what she did to my son could happen again. Lucky for Dr. Wierson, there are solutions to the inconvenience of not driving for the sake of protecting others. There are no solutions to a dead child.
So many days I’ve driven around Decatur and thought of Dr. Wierson’s defense argument as reported in the press. I’ve passed Renfroe Middle School when the kids are released. I find myself thinking, what if Dr. Wierson had made it to Renfroe that day, with sidewalks overflowing with children? I know from her lawyers’ comments that Dr. Wierson has a daughter. What would have happened if Dr. Wierson had made it to her daughter’s school that day, behind the wheel of her big SUV, the one that obliterated the back of our car and plowed into my son’s neck? What if Dr. Wierson’s daughter had been in the car with her?
I think of these children today because Dr. Wierson has already taken my son from me. She has already ruined our lives. My husband is haunted by the shade of purple of Miles’s lips when his body was pulled from the wreckage. I am haunted by the brain death tests we watched doctors conduct and by the feeling of his heart stopping under my hand. When I close my eyes I can still see him in the casket in his Wookie pajamas. Even though I was across the country that day, when I close my eyes, my mind re-creates the moment of impact, when this sweet child felt the full force of Dr. Wierson’s SUV smash into his spine.
We know what mind-bending torture it is to grieve a child, and how that is a life sentence, and we know how the pain of existing without Miles feels like death. We know that the impact of Dr. Wierson’s actions affected kids, schoolmates, neighbors, teachers, family, too, and will for years to come.
All I can hope to do now is speak up for Miles. Your honor, I know he would be desperate to protect others from this pain. So we ask you, on behalf of Miles and our community, please do not grant Dr. Michele Wierson her license to drive again today, especially before we’ve had the opportunity to even begin to hear the objective facts of this case.
– Leah Jenness