Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Legal, maybe. Moral?

Horrific car-crash tale all about right and wrong actions

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IN simple terms, most of us know right from wrong.

The law may define it, but we don't need a judge or a lawyer to interpret morality.

Our conscience and intellect do that for us.

There are exceptions, of course.

That's what this story is about.

* * *

Given its horrific nature, you might remember the accident.

It was three days into the new year -- an unseasonably warm night for January in Winnipeg -- when Ed and Darlene Dean decided to drive out to the cottage for the weekend.

By 5:30 p.m., they were turning off St. Anne's Road and onto the Perimeter Highway headed east. But as they made the turn, the groceries shifted in the back of their Dodge van.

The 50-year-old retired Armed Forces photographer pulled over onto the shoulder and got out to straighten the load.

It was dark, but his parking lights were on.

And as he opened the hatch, the interior lights blinked on.

As it turned out, even if Ed had thought to put on his four-way flashers for the brief stop, it wouldn't have mattered.

Raymond Paul Bassinet didn't see him until it was too late.

Bassinet, a 32-year-old father of two, was on his way home from work in his Chevy Blazer when he passed the yield sign at the southeast corner of St. Anne's Road.

There is no merger lane onto the Perimeter at the corner, but Bassinet decided to use the shoulder as one anyway.

He had travelled more than 83 metres from the corner, the last six to eight seconds of it, looking over his shoulder, looking for a space in the traffic. Until his SUV slammed into the back of Dean's legs, crushing them against the bumper.

They were all but severed.

Bassinet took off his belt so it could be used as a tourniquet, and placed his jacket over Dean.

He hadn't meant to hurt anyone.

It was an accident.

Later, I would write two columns about what happened.

One from the Deans' perspective as victims. The other suggesting that Bassinet -- who said he was traumatized by what happened -- was also a victim.

Later -- when Bassinet decided to fight the careless driving charge instead of accepting responsibility for what had happened -- I changed my mind about him being a victim.

Last Wednesday, in a Winnipeg traffic court nine months after it happened, Bassinet pleaded not guilty.

Ed Dean watched from a wheelchair that he had positioned in the aisle directly behind Bassinet. He was wearing khaki shorts that exposed the nubs of his hideously scarred, amputated-above-the-knee, legs.

At the lunch break, Dean remained right where he was, sneering and glaring at Bassinet, forcing him to awkwardly hug the wall as he passed without making eye contact.

I asked Dean how he felt as he listened to the defence.

"Sick," he said.

Basically, Bassinet's defence came down to this:

* The shoulder looked like a third lane and appeared to be a "beaten path" used routinely as a merge lane.

* Bassinet wasn't driving carelessly because he wasn't speeding. He was travelling less than 25 kilometres an hour when he struck the back of the van, and his air bag didn't even deploy.

* And, finally, the Deans should have had their hazard lights on.

Blame the victim.

At least in part.

Bassinet's lawyer argued that his client might be guilty of imprudent driving, but not careless driving.

Traffic court judge Norm Sundstrom didn't agree.

He said the Crown had proven its case of careless driving when Bassinet admitted that he wasn't looking when he struck Ed Dean from behind.

So obviously all that remains is the sentencing?

Not quite.

In a bizarre twist that caught both the Crown and the defence off guard Wednesday, Sundstrom said the shoulder where the accident happened might not be part of the highway.

"I have a problem with the definition of highway," Sundstrom said.

If, because of some sloppily written legislation, the shoulder isn't part of the highway, then Bassinet can't be found guilty of a highway traffic offence.

Sundstrom adjourned the case a week to await written arguments.

* * *

Should Bassinet be found not guilty, it will be because of a legal technicality, not because a judge hasn't properly concluded that he was driving carelessly.

There is a difference, of course, between legality and morality.

What Bassinet did to Ed Dean and his family last January was an accident.

What he did by pleading not guilty and putting the Deans through a trial -- that attempt to blame the victim -- was premeditated.

In this case, the legal definition of highway doesn't matter.

As someone once suggested, life is a highway.

And, like it or not, at the end of the road, we all have to take responsibility for what we've done.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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