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Court rejects appeal in 2011 fatal wreck conviction
Attorney argued hit-and-run/self-incrimination issue
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Forsyth County News

The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday rejected the appeal of a man convicted of vehicular homicide in a July 2011 fatal wreck on Ga. 400.

Walter E. Bell, whose reckless driving caused 21-year-old Jenny McMillan-Gutierrez to lose control of her vehicle, was also convicted of reckless driving, leaving the scene of an accident and tampering with evidence.

In upholding Bell’s conviction, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the “evidence was sufficient to enable a rational tier of fact to find Bell guilty of all of the crimes for which he was convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The decision was unanimous against Bell, whose attorney, Rafe Banks, had argued that requiring use of safety belts is unconstitutional and the charges should have been a misdemeanor not a felony.

Banks also contended that requiring a motorist to stop at the scene of an accident violates rights against self-incrimination.

Saying he was “disappointed they didn’t give some of our theories more attention,” Banks indicated his next step would be to ask the court to reconsider or to take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The self-incrimination issue, that opinion seems — you read it and you think it’s a closed-door issue,” he said. “It’s not because there’s a subsequent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that makes it much more of an open question than the Georgia Supreme Court decision acknowledges.

“We’re going to think about things, but there’s probably going to be a next step.”

During his March 2012 trial, prosecutors showed Bell cut in front of McMillan Gutierrez’s vehicle twice before braking suddenly, causing her to swerve across two lanes of traffic and crash deep into the woods along Ga. 400.

Bell, who was 44 at the time, sped away from the scene and changed to a different rental car. He was sentenced to serve 12 years of a 20-year sentence. His April 2012 motion for a new trial was denied in September of that year.

In its decision, the state Supreme Court determined that Georgia’s hit and-run statute does not violate one’s rights against self-incrimination under either the U.S. or state constitutions.

Moving forward, Banks said he will be looking specifically at the hit-and-run/self-incrimination issue, as well as the felony versus misdemeanor issues.

“I don’t give up easily,” he said.