Tamika Pledger’s son jumped the courtroom railing in anguish to reach his mother when a Wyandotte County jury found her guilty Thursday of manslaughter for plowing into four teens and killing one with her speeding car.
Sheriff’s deputies immediately tackled and handcuffed the son, and pulled away and handcuffed Pledger, 41.
The brief scuffle capped a trial tense with emotion and marked by repeated admonitions from the judge against outbursts. And it was a milestone in a 2 1/2 -year legal journey in which Pledger was disciplined for trying to contact the families of her victims, filed motions challenging the legality of the court proceedings and was ordered to undergo a competency evaluation.
At the state’s request, District Court Judge Michael A. Russell on Thursday doubled Pledger’s bond to $100,000. She had been free pending her trial but was back in the Wyandotte County jail Thursday afternoon.
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Pledger killed 16-year-old Tierra Smith on Jan. 30, 2015, when her Mercedes-Benz crested a steep hill at a minimum of 55 mph and drove into a crowd of young people at 13th Street and Troup Avenue in Kansas City, Kan. The speed limit there is 20 mph.
Mark Britt, Brandy Glover and Essense Robinson all suffered broken bones. Both of Britt’s legs were broken, and he had to learn to walk again. A bone in Glover’s wrist protruded through the skin. Robinson cannot dance anymore. All three still feel pain from their injuries.
Pledger was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and three counts of aggravated battery. She could get a maximum of 68 months, or 5 1/2 years, in prison. A sentencing date has not been set.
Afterward, Robinson said Pledger deserved her punishment.
“She killed Tierra,” Robinson said. “And Tierra did not deserve to die.”
James Spies, who was a special prosecutor for the state in the case, said the evidence did not show that Pledger deliberately drove into the crowd. But it showed that she was extremely reckless, especially since she lived in the neighborhood, was very familiar with the hill and its obstructing view and knew there was a school bus stop on the other side.
“She put more than four kids at risk,” Spies said after the verdict. “A prison sentence is important because it sends a message that this kind of reckless conduct won’t be tolerated.”
Pledger is a mother of four, a self-described community activist, a former parent-teacher association president at Wyandotte High School and a two-time unsuccessful candidate for the Unified Government commission.
Several sheriff’s deputies were deployed inside the courtroom for the verdict. They and the judge ordered anyone who could not control their emotions to leave. Russell did not want a repeat of Wednesday’s outbursts from some family members of Pledger’s victims.
“Bitch, you killed my daughter,” one screamed while Pledger was sobbing on the witness stand.
The jury took about an hour and a half to reach a verdict after two days of testimony.
Pledger’s son, a senior in college, sat in the first row of the gallery behind his mother when the verdict was read by the court bailiff. After a few moments, he rose and climbed over the railing to try to reach his mother. Deputies pounced and brought him to the floor. One deputy grabbed Pledger and pulled her aside. When she resisted, she also was handcuffed.
All this played out in front of the victims and their families, who occupied the other side of the courtroom all week.
It was Pledger’s close family and supporters who were saddened and angry after the verdict, at least one calling the higher bond an act of prejudice.
Two of the victims, Glover and Robinson, are sisters, and cousins of Pledger’s.
Pledger’s own daughter was among the group of youths gathered on Troup Avenue that day.
Another Pledger cousin, Ta’Mya Coulter, was the focal point of the gathering. One or more other girls had an issue with her and were waiting for her at the bus stop. Coulter called Pledger, with whom she was living, and said the girls were “trying to jump me” and asked her to come.
That’s when Pledger, who lived a few blocks away, got in her car and drove to the bus stop.
Pledger said she tried to brake when she crested the hill, but her car began sliding. An auto expert testified there was nothing wrong with the vehicle’s brakes.
An accident reconstruction specialist with the Shawnee Police Department testified that a tire-skid analysis indicated Pledger was traveling at least 55.3 mph when she crested the hill and may have been going as fast as 72.6 mph. A witness testified she was moving at highway speed.
Defense attorney Michael Gunter tried to poke holes in the state’s case, saying in his closing argument that “the investigation was shoddy.”
Pledger said she was not speeding and stopped her car before parking it to the side and trying to comfort the injured.
Spies countered that reports of bodies flying through the air and a shattered windshield were proof of a “high-velocity impact.”
Pledger was initially charged with four counts of reckless aggravated battery, but the manslaughter charge was added after Smith, a Raytown High School student, died of a brain hemorrhage a week later. At the time, Pledger was seeking the Unified Government board seat vacated by Mark Holland upon his election as mayor.
From the beginning, prosecutors raised concerns about Pledger’s inappropriate attempts to contact the victims’ families and to try to dissuade them from pressing charges. A jailhouse recording before she posted bond captured her telling another person about “Plan B,” to have people contact the families on her behalf and get them to tell the district attorney they did not want to press charges. She also talked about using the media to pressure the district attorney.
In the months after the crash, Pledger filed motions challenging the criminal charges against her and the legality of the court proceedings. She appeared to embrace some of the tenets of the sovereign citizen movement, which rejects the legitimacy of federal and local governments and their laws.
A judge ordered Pledger to undergo an evaluation to determine if she was competent to stand trial after she said in a hearing she didn’t understand the charges against her. She has said the people she ran into were responsible because they were blocking traffic to watch a fight. Pledger drafted a 39-page motion in which she asserted that investigators on her case had committed perjury and tampered with evidence.
Pledger went through several attorneys before being represented by Gunter. At one point, she wanted to represent herself. She even tried to engage Spies, who is in private practice, to represent her. Spies said Thursday after the verdict that he never met with Pledger and that she “thumbed her nose at our legal system” by dragging the matter out for 2 1/2 years.
“This represents justice for these families that have waited for too long,” he said.