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Sierra Rigel

Other Oregon Exonerations
On September 15, 2010, 17-year-old Sierra Rigel fell asleep while driving and lost control of her car. The vehicle crossed the center divider of Highway 101 in Curry County, Oregon, and struck a motorcycle driven by 45-year-old Danny Michael Nudo, who was killed.

Witnesses at the scene told police that Rigel, who was hysterical, said several times: “I’m so tired. I just fell asleep. I was going to pull over.”

Rigel, an honors student who was driving within the speed limit and had no alcohol or other illicit substances in her system, was charged with negligent homicide and prosecuted as a juvenile. In May 2011, Rigel went on trial before Curry County Judge Cynthia Beaman who heard the case without a jury.

The prosecution presented a transcript of a recorded interview Rigel gave to a police officer at the hospital shortly after the crash.

According to the transcript, Rigel said, “So I—I knew I should have pulled off, so I—I was waiting for somewhere to sleep, but I couldn’t (inaudible).”

There was no evidence that Rigel was distracted by being on a cell phone. The defense presented a human factors expert who testified that people are poor at recognizing when they are fatigued and that a driver can go from not being aware that they are tired to a state of light sleep within 60 seconds.

On May 4, 2011, Judge Beaman convicted Rigel, noting specifically that Rigel said she knew that she should have pulled off the road. “Those statements and…the fact that you’re a bright person and knew that you needed to pull over and takes naps because you could possibly fall asleep…it’s clear to me that you were aware of the risk and you consciously disregarded the risk,” the judge declared.

Rigel was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and her driver’s license was revoked for life.

On January 29, 2014, the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and dismissed the case. The Court said it had listened to the audio of Rigel’s statement to police and determined that the transcript was incorrect.

Where the transcript quoted Rigel as saying, “So I—I knew I should have pulled off, so I—I was waiting for somewhere to sleep,” the audio revealed that what she actually said was “I knew I shouldn’t put it off, so I—I was looking for somewhere to—to sleep. But I couldn’t find a turnoff.”

The prosecution had argued that the statement on the transcript showed that Rigel knew and ignored the risk of a crash due to her drowsiness. The Court held that Rigel’s actual statement was not evidence of her disregarding a known risk. Absent the statement, the Court said, there was insufficient evidence to support a conviction for negligent homicide.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/24/2014
Most Serious Crime:Manslaughter
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2010
Sentence:Community service
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No