Fifth District orders new trial for Madison County man accused in fatal accident

By Record News | Jan 28, 2019

MOUNT VERNON – Madison County Associate Judge Luther Simmons improperly convicted a driver in a fatal accident on the basis of victim impact letters, Fifth District appellate judges ruled on Jan. 16. 

They granted defendant Scott Peery a new trial before a different judge. 

Simmons found him guilty of failure to reduce speed, fined him $1,000, and placed him on probation for six months. 

Fifth District Justice David Overstreet wrote that the record supported Peery’s suggestion that letters might have influenced Simmons’s judgment. 

“At the very least, the court considered something other than the evidence presented at trial,” Overstreet wrote. 

“Either way, the circumstances give rise to an appearance of impropriety.” 

According to background in the ruling, Peery’s Ford F150 pickup struck Laura Helmkamp, age 52, in 2013. 

He told Collinsville police he turned right from Bridle Ridge Road to Beltline Road, and said he didn’t see her. He was issued a ticket for failure to reduce speed. 

Two sisters of Helmkamp sent impact letters to the court. 

One wrote that a driver can’t miss seeing a pedestrian if he sees the light. 

She wrote that if he’s going the speed limit and following the rules of the road, he could bring himself to a stop. She also wrote that saying he never saw her, begged belief. 

“He claims that he only heard two thumps,” she wrote. “He heard more thumps than that and he saw more than that.” 

Overstreet wrote that the letters were highly critical of the Peery's driving and included emotionally charged expressions of grief over the loss of Helmkamp's life.

"As the defendant observes on appeal, the letters were undoubtedly intended to influence the trial court's decision in this case," he wrote.

"In fact, one of the letters specifically states, 'Please consider my sister when you hear this case."

Peery’s case moved sideways instead of forward, as the charge changed to reckless conduct and back to failure to reduce speed. 

Simmons held a bench trial in January 2016. 

The parties stipulated to testimony of driver Alissa Daniel, who followed Peery after her red light turned green. 

She stated she didn’t see Helmkamp walking on the shoulder, that she heard a noise and looked and saw Helmkamp lying on the roadway. 

Police lieutenant Eric Owen testified that Peery said he heard a noise. 

Owen said Peery told him he looked back, saw Helmkamp on the road, and called for assistance. 

Sergeant Mark Krug testified that Helmkamp’s clothing would not have made her difficult to see and there were no obstructions preventing Peery from seeing her. 

Krug estimated Peery’s speed at 17 to 21 miles per hour, and said there were no indications that he drove in a reckless manner. 

He said Peery was at fault because he had a statutory obligation to not strike pedestrians and to reduce his speed to avoid one. 

Peery testified that he approached the intersection after dropping off his son at a nearby school. 

He said he looked left and right before turning, he heard a noise and the truck felt like it hit the curb. 

He said there was nothing he could have done to avoid the accident. 

In March 2016, Simmons found Peery guilty. 

Simmons wrote that walking on the right side of the road made Helmkamp contributory to the accident, but that her violation didn’t contribute to Peery’s violation. 

He found Peery’s failure to act with due care was the proximate cause of death. 

Peery moved for a new trial, and Simmons denied it. 

Peery appealed for a new trial and got it. 

Overstreet wrote, “Notably, when summarizing the facts of the case, the trial court referenced testimony that had not been presented at the January 2016 bench trial. 

“Most notably, the court indicated that the defendant had testified that as he was turning onto Beltline, ‘he began to turn his head back to the right when he heard two thumps.’” 

He wrote that the “thumps terminology is found nowhere in the record other than in the letter and the trial court’s March 2016 judgment order.” 

“Moreover, the court’s order erroneously indicates that the defendant testified that he heard two thumps,” he wrote. 

A judge must consider only the evidence presented, he wrote, and whether Peery was prejudiced is irrelevant. 

“It is the appearance that the statements might have influenced the court’s judgment that warrants a new trial before a different judge,” he wrote. 

Peery moved for a new trial, and Simmons denied it. 

Morgan Scroggins and Phillip Baldwin, both of Granite City, represented Peery.

Appellate prosecutor Sharon Shanahan represented the state.

Want to get notified whenever we write about any of these organizations ?

Sign-up Next time we write about any of these organizations, we'll email you a link to the story. You may edit your settings or unsubscribe at any time.

Organizations in this Story

Madison County Madison County State's Attorney

More News

The Record Network