Nevada Supreme Court hears racial arguments on DUI murder charges
LAS VEGAS — Nevada Supreme Court justices are considering whether to overturn a second-degree murder charge against Ronald Leavell, who authorities say caused a fatal crash in 2017 while high on marijuana and driving up to 80 mph over the speed limit.
During oral arguments, Nevada Justice Lidia Stiglich juxtaposed Leavell’s case with Scott Gragson’s, who in 2019 also killed a person while driving under the influence, but was charged with two lesser crimes, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.
Leavell is Black while Gragson, an affluent Las Vegas real estate broker, is white. Gragson was charged with one count of DUI resulting in death and one count of DUI resulting in substantial bodily harm. He is currently free on bail while awaiting sentencing.
Deputy Public Defender David Westbrook, who represents Leavell, suggested prosecutors were not treating DUI cases objectively.
“That’s how you get stuff like poor, African American Ronald Leavell rotting in a jail for almost three years pre-trial, being charged with second-degree murder, and rich, Scott Gragson not being charged with second-degree murder,” Westbrook said. “The Scott Gragson question has not been answered, and it cannot be answered. Because the answer is ‘we like to do what we want.’ That is the antithesis of our justice system, and it cannot be allowed.”
Justice Abbi Silver, too, pointed to similarities in the wrecks involving Gragson and Leavell.
Gragson was driving over 80 mph while under the influence of alcohol before he slammed into a tree, killing Melissa Newton, a mother of three, and injuring three others in his vehicle, according to prosecutors.
Leavell was high on marijuana when he struck another vehicle while traveling near or above 80 mph in a 25 mph zone, authorities said.
“How is that different?” Silver asked. “It’s just as dangerous to anybody out there, and here (in Gragson’s case) you have multiple victims, and he wasn’t charged with murder in the second degree. How do you reconcile two seconds of any collision?”
Deputy District Attorney Thomas Moskal defended the decision not to charge Gragson with second-degree murder, saying that the office had considered it.
This year, Judge Michael Cherry, a former Nevada Supreme Court justice, threw out a second-degree murder charge against a man who admitted to police that he drank before he drove 115 mph and slammed into another car, killing the couple inside.
In a November order, the high court wrote that Leavell’s appeal raised “significant questions of statutory interpretation.” The justices did not indicate Tuesday how quickly they would rule on his case.