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Higher courts likely to weigh in on case against psychologist who caused crash that killed 5-year-old

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Higher courts likely to weigh in on case against psychologist who caused crash that killed 5-year-old

Michelle Wierson, far left, sits next to her attorneys Kristen Novay and Robert Rubin during a May 11 hearing. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

Decatur, GA — Michelle Wierson caused the 2018 crash that killed 5-year-old Miles Jenness, but two experts — including one appointed by the court — agree that she was legally insane at the time of the incident.

The DeKalb County District Attorney offered her a plea deal in 2021. If she pleaded guilty to homicide by vehicle, a felony, the prosecutor wouldn’t pursue charges of reckless driving and battery. Her sentence would be 10 years of probation. But Wierson, who works as a licensed psychologist, rejected that offer, partly because she could lose her license to practice, her attorney Robert Rubin said. Her defense team countered that she would plead guilty to misdemeanor charges, but the district attorney rejected that counteroffer.

“There’s no dispute that she was insane at the time,” Rubin said. “Why should she plead guilty when she’s not guilty by reason of insanity? It doesn’t even make sense.”

Now the prosecutor, Josh Geller, is sailing into uncharted legal waters. An appellate court will likely rule on the issues raised by the case, followed by a possible appeal to the state Supreme Court, which could drag out the case’s resolution for years.

The assistant district attorney wants a judge to rule that the prosecutors can present evidence that Wierson was not taking her prescribed medication at the time of the crash and that it should be a factor in determining her criminal liability. The assistant district attorney also wants a judge to rule that insanity is not a valid legal defense for the charges of homicide by vehicle predicated upon reckless driving, arguing that criminal intent is not relevant to those charges. Related to that, the district attorney asked for the battery charge to be tried separately since insanity is a valid defense for that charge.

Wierson’s attorneys have filed motions in opposition to the prosecution’s motions.

There’s a problem with Geller’s request to admit evidence that Wierson was not taking her medication, aside from the defense arguing that the evidence won’t hold up in trial. Georgia law does not have an exception for the insanity defense if the defendant was not taking prescribed medication for a mental health disorder.

“The issue is an open one for the courts,” the district attorney’s motion to Judge Courtney Johnson said.

During a May 11 hearing on the motions, Geller acknowledged that an appellate court would likely decide the issue.

“It’s our position in reading the law, it’s not that the law supports the defense’s position or my position,” Geller said. “It’s just silent. It doesn’t give any direction either way. … We’d like this to be determined by the court of appeals.”

Rubin and his co-counsel, Kristen Novay, agreed that the case is likely headed to the appeals court.

The May 11 hearing was a somber one. Even five years removed from the crash, the pain of that day lingers. The Jenness family and its supporters sat on one side of the courtroom, wearing buttons with Miles Jenness’ picture and crying quietly. Wierson’s family and friends sat on the other side of the courtroom. After the hearing, some of Wierson’s supporters told a reporter they were concerned that the prosecution is opening the door to other people being criminally responsible for things that happened when they weren’t taking their medication, even medication that isn’t used to treat a mental illness.

Geller argued that the Wierson case is unique because, as a psychologist with a history of mental illness, Wierson knew better than anyone the dangers of not taking medication prescribed for a mental illness.

“She understands the importance of compliance,” Geller said.

Rubin countered that despite the prosecutor’s claim that Wierson’s brother and mother told a doctor she hadn’t been taking medication for weeks, the family says they never said anything like that. He said the statement was entered into Wierson’s medical records by a nurse at a mental hospital who hasn’t been identified. Rubin said Wierson’s mental state resulted from being under medicated and not from discontinuing her medication.

“She was not sufficiently medicated to handle the stressors that came into her life in the summer and fall of 2018,” Rubin said.

Those stressors included her father entering hospice care after being diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disease and the unexpected death of a friend. When she slammed into two vehicles on Midway Road at South Candler Street in Decatur with her Volkswagen, causing Miles Jenness’ injury and, ultimately, his death, she thought her daughter was in danger and was rushing to save her.

According to a court expert who evaluated Wierson, she was delusional at the time of the crash.

“Dr. Wierson woke up from her nap on September 27, 2018, with the delusional belief that her daughter’s life was in danger,” the doctor wrote. In congruence
with that belief, she frantically made efforts to rescue her daughter on her own, to recruit neighbors to help her with her daughter’s rescue, and to counter her mother’s efforts to obstruct her rescue attempt. She called 911 to get police assistance, but she was too frazzled and disorganized to make any meaningful contact with a 911 operator after waiting on hold for several minutes. Dr. Wierson believed that her daughter’s life was in danger, and that belief stemmed from her delusional perception that God was communicating with her. She said that as she rushed to rescue her daughter, God also filled her with a sense of trust that no danger would come to her as long as she did God’s will. On the day of the alleged incident, Dr. Wierson’s frantic attempts to rescue her daughter were the direct result of a delusional compulsion to keep her daughter out of harm.”

At the end of the hearing, Judge Johnson asked Geller and Wierson’s attorneys to draw up orders for her consideration within 15 days, though it’s unclear when she would rule on the case.

The Jenness family released a statement following the hearing saying that Miles should be the focus of the case.

“He never had a loose tooth. He never rode a bike without training wheels. He never had a sleepover party. He was excited to meet his new cousin in a few months. He was just learning to read. He was the light of our lives,” his parents said.

Here is the full statement provided by the Jenness family following the May 11 hearing:

We know that we live in a great county where there is a process our justice system must go through, but we look forward to trial, when we will be past all the pretrial matters and this case can focus on the person that it is supposed to be about: Miles. He was five years old when he was killed on the way home from an afterschool program. He was kind, smart, and funny; he was absorbing everything about the world; his favorite food was shrimp, and he was obsessed with Star Wars and the Avengers; and he had so much love in him. He never had a loose tooth. He never rode a bike without training wheels. He never had a sleepover party. He was excited to meet his new cousin in a few months. He was just learning to read. He was the light of our lives.

Miles would have turned ten at the beginning of March. We see his friends growing up, and we try to guess how tall he would be, where maybe his soft kid cheeks would sharpen into a preteen’s jawline, if maybe he’d have wanted to grow out his hair. Right now, if he were here, we’d be excited about summer vacation plans instead of staying here and leaving the summer open to be present for him in legal matters.

The law might be complex and subject to debate, but one fact is not: Miles should be here. We are grateful to Senior Assistant District Attorney Josh Geller for his tireless advocacy and for always saying Miles’s name, and for the support of Shannon Hodder and Sherry Boston and the wonderful victim advocates. And to all the many members of our amazing community who showed up today, wearing purple, giving hugs, supporting us, and loving Miles: We are endlessly grateful. We love you so much.

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