Mother of deceased students files wrongful death lawsuit — (The Daily Mississippian)

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The Daily Mississippian

Posted on Jun 20 2013 – 7:47am

by Nathanael Shea Griggs

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Frances Wheat, mother of John and Sarah Wheat, two University of Mississippi students who were killed in the two-car accident in October, filed a suit in the Lafayette County Circuit Court in February against former Ole Miss student John Howard Strickland Jr.

The complaint alleges Strickland was the cause of John and Sarah’s death and “should not have been operating a vehicle at the time of the accident.”

Strickland’s parents are also included in the suit, which claims that they are also responsible as the owners of the SUV. The case was transferred to the U.S. District Court in March.

Strickland is already facing two criminal indictments for aggravated driving under the influence, and now faces a wrongful death lawsuit.

The beginning of civil proceedings for the suit has been set for July 1 in Aberdeen before Federal Magistrate Judge David A. Sanders.

A hearing date is set for July 8, when Judge Andrew Howorth will rule on the defense’s “Motion to Suppress” the toxicology results filed by Thomas C. Levidiotis, Strickland’s attorney.

A trial date of July 24 will start the criminal proceedings, which will be held in Lafayette County before Judge Howorth.

The following timeline is a general reconstruction of the information currently available with regard to the evolution and development of the situation.

The two car accident occuring on October 27, 2012. Siblings, John and Sarah Wheat, were traveling back to Oxford from the Race For A Cure in Tupelo when they were killed in a car accident shortly after 11:00 a.m. on Highway 6 near the Highway 7 intersection. John Howard Strickland Jr., 21 at the time, was reported by The Clarion Ledger to be listed on the preliminary accident report as the “at-fault” driver of a sport utility vehicle that crossed the Highway 6 median for “unknown reasons,” resulting in the accident. Sarah Wheat, a 24-year-old communications sciences and disorders major, was pronounced dead at the scene. Her brother John, a 30-year-old accounting major, passed away shortly after being airlifted to The Med in Memphis.

In November of 2012, the Mississippi State Crime Lab returned the results of a toxicology report on Strickland at the time of the accident to the Oxford Police Department.

The findings stated that Strickland was under the influence of a plethora of drugs at the time of the accident including Valium, Prozac and marijuana. The report also stated Strickland had been inhaling gas from air canisters. Oxford Police then formally charged Strickland with two counts of aggravated driving under the influence. Strickland turned himself into authorities later the same week and waived his right to extradition.

In February of 2013, Frances Wheat, the victims’ mother, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Lafayette County Circuit Court as the personal representative of her children’s estate with Rhea Tannehill of Oxford as her counsel.

According to reports from The Oxford Eagle, Strickland’s parents are also listed in the suit which claims that Strickland is negligently responsible for the deaths of John and Sarah Wheat, and that furthermore, Strickland’s parents were “negligent in entrusting and providing a vehicle to their son,” who had just previously been convicted of a DUI first offense in August of 2011.

In March of 2013, the wrongful death suit was transferred from Lafayette County Circuit Court to United States District Court. Also in March, a grand jury returned two indictments on the aggravated DUI charges and an arraignment hearing was held. Strickland, who has withdrawn from the university, was living at home in San Antonio free on a $35,000 bond. He was not present at the arraignment and his attorney had previously entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.

On April 4, 2013, Strickland’s attorney, Thomas C. Levidiotis, filed a “Motion to Suppress” in the Chancery Clerk and District Attorney’s offices. A hearing date for this motion was set for July 8 at 9 a.m. The motion requests that the presiding judge “suppress the introduction as evidence or publication to the jury the results of any tests, examinations or forensic inquiry resulting from any draw of blood, urine, or bodily fluids or substances” taken from Strickland immediately following the accident.

Levidiotis states in the motion that the fluids tested were taken without his client’s “consent or proper authority of law” and references “two particular laboratory tests.” The motion also states that “missing from discovery materials are search and seizure warrants, applications and affidavits for such or proper return for any materials seized pursuant thereto.”

Also filed that day by Levidiotis on behalf of his client was a “Motion for a Speedy Trial” requesting that his client be “tried no later than 270 days from his arraignment.” This motion states “punitive discovery tactics, including the failure of the state to respond completely to Mr. Strickland’s timely ‘Motion for Discovery’ in this case, provide additional evidence of the State’s unwillingness or inability to prosecute this case in a timely fashion.” The “Motion for a Speedy Trial” further elaborates and cites 13 cases that represent “a cursory investigation of violent crimes dismissed or retired in Lafayette County in the last few years.”

Pursuant to a previous request for discovery by Strickland’s defense, the District Attorney’s office submitted, most notably, three compact discs containing various confidential case documents and reports.

The third CD, according to Levidiotis, was blank. Confirmation as to whether the discovery process had now been satisfactorily completed was currently unavailable from either party.

On July 1, 2013, A proposed hearing is scheduled beginning of civil proceedings against John Strickland Jr. He is scheduled to appear before Federal Magistrate Judge, David A. Sanders, in Aberdeen.

On July 8, 2013 Judge Howorth is set to rule on the defense’s “Motion to Suppress” the toxicology results.

Strickland’s criminal trial on two counts of Aggravated DUI is set to begin on July 24, 2013.

Requests for comment made to the District Attorney’s office were not returned, while Levidiotis declined to comment on his client’s trial.