A son seeks answers

A son seeks answers

Peter Cadden is convinced law enforcement officials got it wrong when they concluded his mother caused the traffic accident that killed her, but they won't listen.

Helen Cadden left her bank and walked up toward the Mattapoisett fire station. The 87-year-old grandmother always crossed Route 6 there when she ran errands because there was a crosswalk with a sign saying “State Law: Yield for Pedestrians in Crosswalk.” But on this particular morning, a sunny day in early August 2007, she never made it to the other side of the road. As she ventured across the street, she was hit by a car and thrown 30 feet. She landed with her feet bent painfully under her body. Ron Scott, who was the fire chief at the time, rushed to her side and straightened her legs. “Ronnie, is that you?” Helen asked. “I am very uncomfortable.”

Cadden was airlifted by helicopter to Boston Medical Center and her son, Peter, rushed to her side. Looking at her frail body lying in the hospital bed, Peter knew her injuries were serious, but he nevertheless expected his mother to pull through. “She was one tough gal,” he says. But her injuries turned out to be too severe. She died on Aug. 15, 2007, 12 days after being hit.

Peter Cadden buried his mother and his grief soon gave way to nagging doubts about what happened on Route 6 that day. The police said his mother was to blame for the accident. Relying on a reconstruction of the accident by state investigators, the police said Helen Cadden stepped out unexpectedly into traffic, making it impossible for 85-year-old Evelyn Pursley to avoid hitting her. Pursley was fined $100 for failing to yield to a pedestrian, and the case was dismissed.

But something about the case didn’t add up to Peter Cadden. More than three years later, Cadden is still convinced the police made a mistake, and his mother was not at fault. He has laid out his version of events before the Mattapoisett police chief, the Plymouth County district attorney, and the State Police, but none of them have been willing to reopen the case. He knows that reopening the case won’t bring his mother back. Still, he can’t let it go. It’s as if establishing the truth about what happened that day on Route 6 is his way of dealing with the death of his mother.

“It’s important if you make a mistake to own it,” he says. “I would like to hear, ‘We screwed up, I’m sorry.’ It’s not going to bring my mother back, but at least then I can move on.”

No strangers

Helen Cadden and the driver of the car that hit her, Evelyn Pursley, were not strangers. They both spent time at the local Council on Aging, where Pursley was a former chairman. They had come to know each other there, but they were not close friends.

Pursley was a woman of some prominence in town. She was a World War II and Korean War veteran, who went on to teach home economics at Fairhaven High School. She was a wife, mother of one child, and grandmother of three. She successfully battled pancreatic cancer in 1978 and retired from teaching in 1985. She then became heavily involved in senior advocacy, a pursuit that earned her the Frank J. Manning award from former Gov. Paul Cellucci for outstanding elder advocacy, as well as being named The Standard Times “Mattapoisett Woman of the Year.”

Helen Cadden, who everyone called Jean except her grandson, who referred to her as “Caddie,” had a lower profile around town. Born in Washington, DC, she was one of four children. Her father was an attorney and her mother an opera singer. During World War II, she worked for Westinghouse on a vacuum tube line, where she witnessed an explosion on a loading dock that killed several people. As a child, her father’s law partner ran off with money belonging to their clients, and her father had to replace those funds. It was during the Depression and times were tough. According to Peter Cadden, the experience left his mother with a toughness and a sense of humor she never relinquished, even as she got married, had three kids, and became a nurse. “If I didn’t laugh, I’d cry,” was what Helen often said.

She moved to Mattapoisett in 1971 to be near friends and, except for a short move to Florida in the late 1970s, lived there on Pearl Street for the rest of her life. She enjoyed her elderly years, traveling to places like Australia, Russia, and the Middle East. She often picked up her grandson from his elementary school around the corner and volunteered with the elderly. When she turned 80, she wrote a letter to friends and family titled “Life begins at 80” that boasted about the limitless indulgence and reverence people pay you if you live long enough.

“Being 80 is a lot better than being 70,” she wrote. “At 70 people are mad at you for everything. At 80 you have a perfect excuse no matter what you do. If you act foolishly, it’s your second childhood. Everybody is looking for symptoms of softening of the brain.”

Pictures of her reveal a woman with a slight hunch and a mischievous smile, the body beginning to break down, but the spark still alive. While she embraced the liberation of old age, she was also aware of its limitations. At the age of 81, she gave up her driver’s license, realizing that she had become a danger on the road.

Steve Clapp was Cadden’s next-door neighbor, someone who frequently chatted with her over a glass of wine. As a personal injury lawyer, hired by Peter Cadden, he knew that if she had been hit in the crosswalk there would probably be grounds for a civil suit, so he headed to the crash site the day after the accident. He says he found the spot where Cadden’s body ended up, marked with chalk and spattered with blood. He also talked to Ron Scott, who told him he had first rushed to Cadden’s side and then tried to comfort the distraught Pursley, afraid she would have a heart attack.

Later that day, Clapp saw Pursley riding in a vehicle full of VFW dignitaries in Mattapoisett’s 150th anniversary parade. His life partner, Michele Bernier, a former town selectman, said she mentioned to Police Chief Mary Lyons that Pursley’s appearance in the parade was odd. Bernier said Lyons responded that Pursley had wanted to stay home, but she had convinced her to honor her commitment. Bernier quotes Lyons as saying: “I told her it was just an accident.” Lyons declined comment, referring all questions to the DA’s office.

Did not stop

Initial police and crash reports indicated Cadden was hit from her left in the near lane of the crosswalk and Pursley’s vehicle was traveling below the posted speed limit of 40 miles per hour. In his report, Police Officer Anthony M. Days said witnesses told him Pursley did not stop for Cadden, hitting her with the left front of her vehicle. “Mrs. Pursley informed me she thought the victim was clear of her lane, and believed that the victim may have stepped back into her vehicle,” he wrote in his report.

Days cited Pursley for failure to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk. When Cadden subsequently died, Days raised the charge to motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation.

Days’s report listed two witnesses, then-Deputy Fire Chief Andrew Murray and a man named Alan Desroches, a Mattapoisett general contractor. Murray estimated Pursley’s car was traveling 30 to 35 miles per hour when it struck Cadden in the crosswalk, sending her “10 to 15 feet in the air, flipping several times before landing on the hood of the vehicle.” He came to her aid until the paramedics arrived, and then stayed to assist in getting measurements of the accident scene. Desroches told Days that he saw Cadden “look left and right and stepped into the crosswalk.” There was also a crash narrative and a diagram of the accident, but nothing in it to resolve the question of blame.

An official accident reconstruction wasn’t done at the time of the accident, which is unusual. Ernest Horn, the police chief in Mendon and the control officer for a central Massachusetts council overseeing collision reconstructions, said best practice is to contact an accident reconstruction team immediately if there’s a fatality or someone is airlifted to a hospital with a life-threatening injury. Horn said the team often arrives while emergency personnel are on the scene.

An article published in The Standard Times on Aug. 25 caused some confusion. The article reported that Pursley “will not be prosecuted on any serious criminal charges such as negligent homicide.” The article said Police Chief Lyons had been told by Pursley that she thought the victim was beyond her vehicle’s reach when she drove through the crosswalk. Officials say the story was inaccurate and that Lyons had already charged Pursley with motor vehicular homicide by negligent operation. Three days after the article, Lyons requested help with the investigation from the Plymouth County district attorney’s office. A few weeks later, then-Sgt. Andrew Klane, a decorated State Police accident reconstruction expert, was asked to review the accident. He visited the site on Oct. 14, two months after the accident.

Peter Cadden, meanwhile, was starting to investigate himself. He placed an advertisement in The Standard Times asking for witnesses to come forward with any information about the incident. Only Desroches contacted him. According to Cadden, Desroches said: “Peter, your mother didn’t do anything wrong whatsoever. She looked both ways and stepped into the crosswalk.” Desroches has not returned several phone calls for comment.

The accident reconstruction

Klane’s accident reconstruction report is 10 pages of physics equations, calculating things like pedestrian throw distance, perception reaction time, and time/distance analysis, all adding up to an opinion concluding Helen Cadden was at fault. Klane’s report said Cadden was walking at four feet per second, which means she would have been in the crosswalk for 2.35 seconds before being hit. Assuming Pursley’s car was traveling at 25 miles per hour, Klane concluded 2.35 seconds wasn’t enough time for her to stop. Given her age, Klane said she needed 83 to 101 feet to stop but had only 86.

“It is this officer’s opinion that the cause of this collision is that the pedestrian failed to use care in entering the roadway/crosswalk,” Klane wrote. “Vehicle #1 was approximately 86 feet east of the crosswalk when [Cadden] stepped off the curb.”

For most people, a quick glance at the report would tell them just enough to keep them from looking any further. But Peter Cadden has a background in mechanical engineering and had worked at Texas Instruments for 20 years, so he was able to understand the math and physics as he took to the Internet to decipher it.

The first thing that concerned him was the figure for his mother’s walking speed. The report contended that his mother was walking at four feet per second, a robust pace for a woman who had undergone foot surgery and a bunionectomy, and whose medical records note that she sometimes had to crawl on her hands and knees to maneuver the stairs of her third-floor apartment.

Peter Cadden laid out a tape measure on his living room floor and began testing the walking speeds of his family. It turned out that his wife, who has multiple sclerosis, walked at two feet per second, and says she used to slow down when she walked with Helen, an indication Klane’s estimate of Helen’s speed could be cut at least by half. There is no indication in the report that Klane factored Helen’s age or medical condition into his calculation, which is standard practice, according to officials who accredit accident reconstruction experts.

Skid marks were another concern. Clapp, developing a civil suit, hired an independent accident reconstructionist, who measured skid marks at the accident scene indicating the point of impact was in the crossing lane 12 feet from the curb. The reconstructionist verified the location of the skid marks with Clapp, who had seen them the day after the accident. Klane’s report, by contrast, lists the point of impact at 9.4 feet. His report doesn’t explain how he calculated this number.

Finally, Klane said the width of the traffic lanes was 11 feet, a measurement off by three feet. Peter Cadden went to the crash site and filmed a video of himself measuring the lane width at 14 feet.

Cadden says the conclusions reached by Klane would be wrong if his mother’s walking speed was reduced to two feet per second, and the point of impact was where Clapp and his reconstructionist said it was. Essentially, it would put Helen in the lane for six seconds, placing Pur­sley’s car 6 seconds, or 219 feet, up the road, well over the 101 foot distance from the crosswalk that she needed to stop.

While the lane-width measurement wouldn’t affect these calculations, Klane’s error in measuring it led Cadden to question the overall quality of his report.

Broader Debate

In February 2008, six months after the accident, two things happened. First, Pursley and her insurance company paid Helen Cadden’s estate $250,000 to settle potential civil litigation arising out of the accident. Pursley, who stopped driving after the accident, declined comment through her attorney.

Second, Jack Spillane, a columnist for The Standard Times, mentioned the accident in a column on the need for state restrictions on elderly driving. He began sympathetically toward Pursley, writing: “Don’t count me as one of the wagging tongues who want to jump all over poor Evelyn Pursley.” But, while he never touched on the question of legal blame, he said that elderly driving restrictions “would go a long way to preventing the tragic circumstances that befell both Jean Helen Cadden and Evelyn Pursley.”

Pursley’s lawyer, Charles A. Murray III, responded with a letter of his own, titled “The blame for fatality rests with pedestrian.” In his letter, Murray pointed to Klane’s report, quoting from its analysis that “the cause of this collision is that the pedestrian, Helen Cadden, failed to use care entering the roadway/crosswalk” and “Evelyn Pursley could not have reasonably avoided this collision.”

On Mother’s Day of 2008, Cadden responded. In a “Your View” column, he challenged Murray’s letter, saying Klane’s accident reconstruction was “based on blatantly false measurements and assumptions.” He concluded: “If the police spent half as much time enforcing the crosswalk law as they did exonerating the ‘prominent’ elderly driver, we would all be safer.”

In late September, Cadden formally asked the district attorney’s office to investigate his allegations. He also hired independent accident reconstructionist Wilson Dobson to review Klane’s report. Dobson, who reviews 50 to 60 police reconstructions a year, corroborated errors in the walking speed, lane measurement, and the distance from the curb to the point of impact. He said he often finds errors in calculations, but rarely in measurements. In the end, he came to a damning conclusion.  The reconstructionist hired by Peter Cadden found errors and omissions that raised concerns about the integrity of the process.“As a result of these errors and omissions, the State Police reconstructionist came to the wrong conclusion,” he wrote. “When viewed in light of the proper values for walking speed and distance covered, it becomes impossible to conclude this accident was unavoidable due to the actions of Ms. Cadden, or that the driver had no responsibility. The errors and omissions that occurred in the investigation of this case raise serious concerns regarding the integrity of the process.”

Making a case

Cadden and Dobson met with Deputy First Assistant District Attorney John Bradley in early 2009 in Brockton to lay out their case. Bradley said he would review their findings, but he took no action. In an interview, he said he raised Cadden’s concerns with State Police Capt. Steve Vrona, who backed Klane’s report. “The input we got back from them is that it would not change their opinion that the driver is not negligent,” he said.

Bradley emphasized that the district attorney’s office took the investigation very seriously, especially since a fatality was involved. Ultimately, he said he had two experts with conflicting opinions and no eye-witnesses that could verify that Helen Cadden was walking at less than four feet per second. He said it was possible Helen was hustling across the crosswalk to avoid the oncoming car.

In May, Cadden appealed to Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office. Two months later Assistant Attorney General Richard Grundy assured him in a letter that his “points were not lost on me,” but because of the scope of the office and its limited resources, the office doesn’t often reinvestigate matters under the jurisdiction of other law enforcement agencies. He said his office was limited to “investigations only when there is a conflict with those traditional agencies handling the matter or when there is evidence that the investigation has been corrupted.”

Cadden then contacted and set up a meeting with him and Klane. When he laid out his case, Peter said he was met with defensiveness. Pressed about the walking speed, Klane claimed that even if Helen were walking at half the speed, it wouldn’t have changed his conclusion. “It was like he had no understanding of the physics,” Cadden said. When he pressured Klane on other aspects of his report and said he believed the case should be prosecuted, Cadden says Klane told him: “I know what it takes to win these cases.”

David Procopio, director of media relations for the Massachusetts State Police, declined to make Klane and Verona available for an interview. “We would not elaborate beyond the report, and Lt. Klane has already presented its findings, in detail, both to the district attorney and to the victim’s family,” Procopio said in a statement. “His explanations would not change or differ in any way from what is detailed in the report. Mrs. Cadden’s death was a terrible tragedy, albeit one that, according to evidence and the expertise and training of an experienced crash reconstruction specialist, did not warrant criminal charges.”

What’s a citizen to do?

Peter Cadden, unable to convince law enforcement officials that their conclusions were incorrect, says he thinks there should be some sort of independent board citizens like him can appeal to if they have a disagreement with the police. Such boards do exist in municipalities across the United States, often in bigger cities like Boston. Their focus is typically cases of police misconduct. Experts said they were not aware of any boards that would handle a case like Cadden’s. Because of the technical expertise necessary to assess reconstruction reports, as well as the relatively small impact such cases would have, the experts said it would be very difficult to create such a board.

“It’s hard enough to get a civilian review board that has any teeth when it comes to police misconduct,” said Barbara Dougan, a lawyer speaking on behalf of the Massa­chusetts chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild. “I can’t imagine that you’d have any success at all to have a body that would reassess more technical reports.”

There is no civilian review board in Mattapoisett and nothing like it in Plymouth County. Bradley said district attorney policy when a citizen has a complaint about a report is to check back with the supervisor of the agency that authored it, which his office did in the Cadden case. “There’s not a whole lot they can do if [the reconstructionist] refuses to admit it’s wrong,” Bradley said. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s difficult to prove [a report] is botched if you have an experienced trooper giving an opinion that was approved by his experienced supervisor.”

According to Dobson, the accident reconstructionist hired by Cadden, the State Police are usually reluctant to revisit a case once a report is filed unless litigation is involved. “[Reports are corrected] almost never,” he said. “It goes into the hands of the attorney, who brings it to life only in the trial.”

Kevin Reddington, a Brockton attorney who handles accident reconstruction cases, said the motive for not changing reports is probably fear of punishment, rather than malicious intent. “Unless there’s some sort of relationship—it’s probably just an overwhelmed guy who mixed up his numbers,” he said. “What happens is they take an adversarial approach. They don’t want to end up in front of a jury, where he’s going to have his head handed to him.”

Over the past year, Cadden has appealed again to the district attorney’s office and the attorney general’s office and met with Police Chief Lyons. The officials have listened and even re-interviewed a witness, but they did not reopen the case. Cadden is frustrated and still insists the State Police report reached the wrong conclusion, but he is out of options.

“I almost feel like this is an irreversible process from their perspective,” he said of law enforcement officials. “You can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Kevin Schwartz and Shweta Krishnan are Boston University journalism students who began working on this story as part of their coursework. Katie Ryan, a fellow student, contributed research for this story.