Credit: Laura Corley / The Macon Newsroom
Macon’s roads are becoming deadlier for pedestrians, but few hit-and-runs are solved
A single black shoe and fragments of a vehicle were among scant evidence investigators plucked from the asphalt of one of Macon’s busiest thoroughfares in an effort to find Audrey Michelle Mack’s killer.
The clues, strewn in the road at Pio Nono Avenue and Carroll Street on the night of May 30, were noted in a deputy’s write up about the fatal pedestrian hit-and-run.
Mack, 52, was unconscious and en route to the hospital by ambulance when investigators began combing the scene and interviewing potential witnesses. Though several people stood at a nearby corner, a deputy noted none of them saw the crash.
Mack was one of seven people killed by a hit-and-run driver in 2022. Bibb County marked the second-straight deadliest year on record for pedestrian fatalities in 2022 as 17 people were killed walking or biking on roads here last year.
The number of hit-and-run pedestrian fatalities increased from three in 2021 to seven in 2022. Bibb County Sheriff’s Traffic Fatality Investigator Shannon Moseley said in January 2023 only one of those had been solved.
The sheriff’s office had a sole traffic fatality investigator to work all deadly wrecks here since December 2021.
A couple of those investigations yielded “absolutely no physical evidence,” Moseley said. “There was no car parts on scene. There was no security cameras … nothing we could go on as a lead.”
With most of the hit-and-run pedestrian deaths unsolved, Moseley said he worries he doesn’t have time to solve them all.
“You just have to go from one to the other, to the other, like an assembly line and, you know, you worry if you didn’t spend enough time with it,” Moseley said. “That’s the biggest thing: I need to spend more time with each case. … If we just had some money, another investigator that could take some of this caseload off, that would help a lot.”
Deputy shortages at the sheriff’s office — and at law enforcement agencies nationwide — have been ongoing for years. The sheriff’s office is currently short by about 100 deputies, Sgt. Linda Howard said.
Existing disparities exacerbated by the pandemic have helped to fuel a significant increase in traffic-related deaths nationwide. Bibb County also marked a record 70 homicides in 2022.
Weight of blood evidence
In some respects, law enforcement is able to know more about the sobriety of people hit and killed by vehicles than it can about the sobriety of people at the wheel in traffic fatalities.
Only one of the drivers involved in the 17 deadly pedestrian wrecks in 2022 was tested for drugs or alcohol, according to a review of crash reports. That motorist was a commercial trucker whose employer required toxicology tests after wrecks, Moseley said.
Toxicology tests are part of every autopsy, but autopsies are not done in all pedestrian deaths. Four of 17 pedestrians killed in 2022 were autopsied, Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones said.
“If it’s a hit-and-run and you got evidence of a vehicle on a body, that could lead to prosecution,” Jones said.
Every state has an implied consent law that stipulates drivers must consent to blood or breath tests as a condition of driving on public roads. Specifics of each state’s law and consequences for refusing such tests vary. Changes to Georgia’s implied consent law over the past two decades have affected how and when officers go about obtaining those samples.
Before Georgia law changed in 2003, blood tests for drugs and alcohol were required for every driver involved in a wreck resulting in death or serious injury. Since then, officers are required to have probable cause to suspect impairment in order to obtain a driver’s blood.
In 2019, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled evidence of a driver’s refusal to take a roadside breath test for alcohol could not be used as evidence against them in a criminal trial because it violated the state constitution’s mandate against self-incrimination. That prompted the legislature to revise language of the law so that only the refusal of a blood or urine test could be used in criminal court, according to a 2020 Mercer Law Review analysis.
The change makes it so law enforcement agencies in Georgia favor the legal surety of blood tests instead of less intrusive alcohol breath tests.
The Bibb County Sheriff’s Office seldom uses breath tests after crashes, Moseley said, though Bibb deputies still carry the equipment for breath testing in their patrol cars.
“We go straight for the blood test because that’s just an easier way to do it,” Moseley said.
Also as a result of the change to state law, Moseley said the sheriff’s office updated its policy in 2022 so officers ask all drivers involved in serious or fatal wrecks to submit to a voluntary blood test.
“It’s really up to them if they want to do it or not,” Moseley said of the drivers.
If an officer has probable cause to suspect a driver is impaired and the driver refuses breath and blood tests, Moseley said the sheriff’s office uses an e-warrant software that allows investigators to electronically request a judge’s signature to quickly approve a blood test.
Stakes high, training low
When there’s a traffic-related death and Moseley is not on the clock or on call, a patrol deputy responds to the wreck. Officers are supposed to take photos, collect evidence, talk to witnesses and write up reports based on findings.
Patrol deputies worked about half the pedestrian fatalities last year, according to crash reports from the sheriff’s office.
A review of Georgia Peace Officer and Standards Training Council records for officers who worked those pedestrian fatalities shows most officers had little-to-no special training on investigating wrecks. Crash investigations are not part of basic education requirements for certified officers.
Truman Boyle, a veteran Georgia State Patrol trooper who teaches crash investigation courses at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth, said he is concerned about the state’s minimal training requirements for all certified peace officers when it comes to working wrecks.
“They’ve got people with three days of training — literally three days of training — on how to fill out a report,” Boyle said of law enforcement agencies across the state. “They give them a report and they go out on the side of the road and decide whether or not you’re gonna get compensated for severe injuries or whether somebody’s gonna get criminally prosecuted and they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Looking for skid marks and determining the cause of crashes are not part of basic education for law enforcement officers. In contrast, Georgia State Patrol Troopers receive several weeks of crash investigation training, he said.
Moseley said the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office rarely summons state troopers to investigate crashes but does so when a county-owned vehicle is involved.
Boyle said he sees a need for state law to be changed so that “if you’re gonna work a traffic collision, you need to have training to do that and not just know how to fill the form out.”
Moseley said he would like to have deputies who work wrecks here to take a class at the state training center that teaches best practices for wreck investigations including how to identify and preserve evidence at a crash scene.
“It would help out a lot,” Moseley said of the training.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Macon Newsroom.