Blinded Justice 

After a fatal crash, a Nigerian immigrant spent 87 days in jail proving he was sober.

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It was an unusually hot day on May 27, 2009—eventually climbing to 93 degrees with a searing sun and few clouds. Despite the heat, Kenneth Dewey Christensen, 75, was in search of soup. As six lanes of traffic buzzed by, he drove his motorized wheelchair about four blocks from his daughter’s home in West Valley City to Jim’s Family Restaurant, near Bangerter Highway. “The soup wasn’t ready yet, so he said he would return later,” reads a police report that details Christensen’s tragic final hours.

Christensen began his journey back to Jim’s just before noon, but he never got to eat soup. He crossed 4000 West safely and continued on his way east until a dark-blue Volvo traveling at about 40 mph suddenly hopped the curb, crashed into Christensen’s Hoveround and only came to a stop after smashing into a bus-stop shelter. The driver of the Volvo had tried to merge from the far-right lane to the middle lane, saw another vehicle coming into that lane, quickly swerved right to avoid a collision, lost control and crashed.

There was a pool of Christensen’s blood near the destroyed bus stop, and broken glass everywhere. Though he was still alive when paramedics arrived, Christensen soon died at the hospital due to chest and leg injuries.

Gabi Idowu, then 23, emerged from the Volvo he’d just purchased, his face scratched by the air bag. Of that moment, he later said in court, “I couldn’t believe that I just hit somebody. At the time, I felt that he was already dead.” He became hysterical. One witness told police, “I saw the young black man standing over the elderly man screaming that he ‘killed him’ repeatedly. Me and another lady continued to calm him down. I believe he was in shock.”

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Other witnesses told police, and later Idowu’s defense attorneys, that they thought Idowu was just in shock. But in the hours after the crash, police trained to detect drug use suspected something else.

“I watched [Idowu] stand up from where he was sitting. The driver almost stumbled and almost fell down,” wrote the lead detective, West Valley City Police officer Daren Getz. “The driver didn’t appear normal. His speech and mannerisms caused me to believe he might have some type of impairment.”

When a Breathalyzer administered at the scene of the crash registered zero, police thought maybe Idowu was under the influence of a central-nervous-system depressant, or downer, and booked him into jail on $125,000 bail. After drug-test results later showed negative for all substances, the theory was expanded to include the possibility that perhaps Idowu had been using a stimulant that would not appear on the initial blood test. Documents show authorities worried Idowu may have been under the influence of khat, an herbal stimulant that’s not uncommon in some parts of Africa but that's exotic and almost unseen on the streets of West Valley City. For Idowu to possess such a drug is unlikely: A permanent legal resident of the United States since he was 13, Idowu has never traveled back to his homeland and doesn’t have contact with anyone who travels to Africa.

By the time a second toxicology test was completed, prosecutors had shifted their rationale for his incarceration to include the possibility that Idowu had been text messaging when he crashed into Christensen. That theory, too, turned out to be false. As a judge who heard all the evidence later said, the crash was just an accident that could have happened to anyone. The case eventually flopped and all criminal charges were dismissed, but not before Idowu spent 87 nights in the frequently overcrowded Salt Lake County Metro Jail.

Idowu, who believes stereotypes about immigrants and black people played a role in his ordeal, wonders whether his experience in the justice system could happen to anyone, or just to people with dark skin or green cards.

“There’s a difference between tragedy and tragic. … This accident was tragic. A horrible thing happened … and that is tragic. Tragedy in the Shakespearean sense is when someone has done something wrong and horrible results flow from it,” says Idowu’s defense attorney Charles Stewart. “What Gabi was involved in in this accident was tragic. The events that unfolded later were tragedy.”

Global Citizen
In trying to explain to Idowu how he had come to be accused of such a high crime as felony vehicular homicide, an attorney once told him, “What you’ve got to understand is you’re exactly the opposite of what they expected you to be.” 

Babatunde Gabriel Idowu—everyone calls him Gabi—is uncomfortable talking about himself these days. After months of feeling stereotyped by prosecutors and others for being black and an immigrant—as if immigrants don’t know how to drive—he’s wary that anything could be misinterpreted or used to defame him. Eventually, after being urged that details of his life may dispel stereotypes rather than reinforce them, he started talking, slowly and softly, as is his nature—Idowu speaks more like he was raised in Texas than in Nigeria.

Idowu was raised in Lagos, Nigeria, a city of many slums and traffic jams, but also sandy beaches, skyscrapers and wealthy communities. Today, almost 8 million people are packed into an area half the size of Salt Lake County.

His parents divorced and his father immigrated to the United States when he was a teenager and Idowu was young. His mother worked secretarial jobs and raised her only child with help from her mother. “I never had to want for food or things, but we weren’t exactly filthy rich,” Idowu says. “My family worked very hard to take care of me.”

Their government-built home—with air conditioning, television and a car out front—had been owned by his grandfather and inherited by his mother when Idowu was 4 years old. He attended school in the well-kept neighborhood of Victoria Island, an area with shopping malls, luxury condos and apartment buildings. “It was typical suburbia,” Idowu says. “All the houses looked the same.”

At 13, Idowu flew to Dallas for a two-week vacation with his father and stepmother. His father asked him to stay permanently, and he agreed. He later got a green card and permanent-residency status. He got good grades in high school. His hard-driving father, a college graduate and computer consultant, urged him to choose a university based on the scholarships he was offered.

Idowu—although gay, black and non-Mormon—accepted a scholarship to Brigham Young University. His father had urged him to apply there. The no-drinking policy wasn’t a problem, since Idowu only occasionally drinks wine coolers. “I was offered a scholarship. I wasn’t going to turn down money,” Idowu says. “By the second year, reality set in that I just didn’t belong … being a minority in more ways than one.” After a bad relationship breakup, he lost focus, lost his scholarship and moved to Salt Lake City in 2007. “My father was livid … and I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

He couch surfed with friends for a few months and then moved to downtown Salt Lake City. He got a job typical for a young student—he asked that details of his work life not be published—and was accepted to the University of Utah. After learning he would have to pay out-of-state tuition, he withdrew and waited the requisite year to qualify for cheaper in-state tuition. He was accepted at the U in the fall of 2009.

“But then my accident happened.”

Eye of the Beholder
Before West Valley City Police Officer and drug-recognition instructor Darren Mower had even met Idowu at the scene of the crash, Officer Getz told Mower “that Babatunde might have some impairment that wasn’t a result of the crash,” Getz wrote in an incident report. Mower observed that Idowu’s speech “was at a very low volume, and he was slow to respond and speak.” Idowu voluntarily gave a blood sample and declined medical help.

The drug recognition expert (DRE) program began in the 1970s as a way to assess drug impairment, since a Breathalyzer can only detect alcohol. Under international standards, officers training to become a DRE receive 72 hours of training, must pass an exam and conduct 12 evaluations under supervision of a trainer before becoming fully certified.

At the scene, Mower conducted what is called the “horizontal gaze nystagmus” test, in which the officer holds out a pen or light and asks the suspect to follow the pen as the officer moves it back and forth. If the eyeballs flutter or do not move in unison, that could be an indication of drug use, as could pupils that are not dilated equally. Mower noted that Idowu’s pupils were even and “tracked equally,” but they fluttered.

Mower asked Idowu to blow into a Breathalyzer. It showed .000. Fearing that the chaos of a now-gathered media scrum and many witnesses could bias further field sobriety tests, Mower asked Idowu to go to the West Valley City Police Department for further investigation. Idowu agreed. That was the last free choice Idowu made for several months.

At the station, DRE officer Dusty Hamlin conducted the full battery of DRE sobriety tests. Conducting the Romberg balance test, Idowu was asked to stop the test when he estimated that 30 seconds had passed; he allowed 47. Idowu swayed while he counted. He stepped off the line three times while doing the heel-to-toe test. Out of six tries, he only touched his nose correctly twice. Hamlin also conducted the nystagmus test, finding that Idowu’s eyes fluttered during horizontal gazes. All these clues, in addition to comments that Idowu was walking near walls or furniture, allowed Hamlin to conclude that Idowu was on a depressant.

Hamlin noted but did not comment on Idowu’s elevated pulse—measured at 110, 118 and 112 beats per minute, well above the average resting heart rate. Mower, who earlier had conducted only the nystagmus test at the crash scene, not the full battery of assessments, nevertheless wrote in his report, “It is my opinion as a certified DRE instructor that Babatunde Idowu is under the influence of a CNS depressant and he is unfit to safely operate a motor vehicle.”

Idowu was booked into the Salt Lake County Metro Jail. He wouldn’t feel aches and pains from the crash for another two days, which he chalks up to lasting effects of shock. Minor head injuries, like those one might get after hitting an airbag at approximately 40 mph, are one cause of nystagmus that is not drug related.

When Idowu was taken to court for his initial appearance five days later, he rode the prisoner bus in handcuffs and shackles.

Read police documents from the case on Page 2. 

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Jesse Fruhwirth

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