HENRICO COUNTY, Va. — Claire Wenzel's family and friends gathered outside the Henrico County Courthouse Tuesday to protest what they said was a lack of movement on the part of the Henrico Commonwealth's Attorney's Office (CAO) in the case against the person believed to be responsible for their loved one's death.
Wenzel, 26, of Montpelier, was killed in a multi-car crash on I-95 last October.
Her family said they wanted the CAO to recuse themselves and have a special prosecutor assigned to the case.
"We're just waiting in limbo. I can't even start to grieve her until this is taken to court," Wenzel's mother Donna said. "Until I can get justice for her."
Wenzel was involved in a multi-car, chain-reaction crash on I-95 North near Parham Road in the early hours of Oct. 30, 2022.
Police said the chain reaction started when a 2013 Jeep Wrangler went off the road, hit a guardrail, then came to a rest in the travel lanes.
Further crashes happened as drivers tried to avoid the initial wreck.
Police said Wenzel was killed in the fourth crash when the car she was driving was hit and pushed into the Jeep.
The family said the driver of the Jeep was driving under the influence. They added Claire was the designated driver for a group of her friends that night.
"Claire has touched so many lives. Her joyful exuberance for life is evident in all of her relationships," Donna said. "She loves life. She loved every one. She loved going to different outings and parties. She was happiest when she was other with other people."
The family said since the crash, they have struggled to get updates on the investigation and only got a meeting with the CAO on Monday once they learned of the planned protest.
"It makes me feel like they just want to do things once they get wind of something," said Donna, who added the family was informed prosecutors would only seek a misdemeanor DUI charge against the Jeep driver and a reckless driving charge against another. "All of those are essentially a slap on the wrist in the state of Virginia. You could get the same charge if you're driving down the street and not involved in any accident. When you cause a mass casualty incident that shuts down Highway 95, a major thoroughfare through the whole east coast for 12 hours, and have untold first responders coming, I think that more severe charges should be brought against the man who started this accident."
The family said they want at least a manslaughter charge brought as well. They also alleged the prosecutor in the case had made up his mind on charges before receiving a complete investigation and are calling on a special prosecutor to be appointed in the case.
"If you're going to lose the case and go to trial, well, we still want you to go to trial and try and prosecute to the fullest extent even if you lose," sister Emily Wenzel said. "Are you more worried about your win-loss ratio as a district attorney or are you more worried about getting justice for Claire? And it seems that it's the first option."
"Bring it to the grand jury and let the people of Virginia make the decision about whether he is guilty or innocent," added Donna.
CBS 6 legal analyst Todd Stone said it would be up to the CAO to request a circuit court judge appoint a special prosecutor. He added there is a state law that would allow the Virginia Attorney General's Office to intervene at the request of the Governor, but said he was unaware of it ever being used.
Henrico County Commonwealth's Attorney Shannon Taylor released a statement following the protest:
"First and foremost, my thoughts are with those killed or injured during this crash.
There was a multi-vehicle crash that occurred in the early morning hours of October 30, 2022, shortly before 3:00 a.m., on Interstate 95 Northbound, in the vicinity of the I-295 exchange, wherein Claire Elizabeth Wenzel, the driver of one of the vehicles, died from her injuries. There was another driver who also suffered from severe injuries who was sent to MCV Hospital.
Virginia State Police responded to the incident and were responsible for handling the investigation. They were able to conclude their investigation of this matter on April 21, 2023, and attorneys from my office met with certain Wenzel family members on May 1st.
This investigation is on-going, and the rules of ethics that are applicable to criminal prosecutions prohibit me from making comments on the evidence, trial strategy or likely outcomes of the case, so I am not permitted to speak as to the specifics of this matter, but the family who was present yesterday was made aware of the nature of the investigation, as well as the chronology of what the State Trooper had done to date.
At the end of the meeting, my attorneys made the family members who were present aware as to what our game plan was moving forward, to include who we believed should be charged and what applicable code sections would be considered, to include identifying some of the difficulties with unintentional results.
We will continue to keep the Wenzel family up to date with all future developments and offer our support."
The Wenzel family also raised questions about how they said the investigation was handled and said they had been told not enough blood had been taken from the Jeep driver to provide an accurate blood alcohol content (BAC) level.
A spokesperson for Virginia State Police gave CBS 6 the following state in response:
"We appreciate the family's attention to detail and understand how difficult this tragic situation has been for them. The investigating trooper has properly and fully followed all agency protocols and state laws in regards to this fatal crash investigation. This includes obtaining the necessary search warrants for the hospital to obtain blood samples from the driver and submission of such samples to the Virginia Department of Forensic Science for testing and analysis."
The Henrico Commonwealth's Attorney did not indicate when charges could be brought in the case.
The family, who also placed fliers about their story on car windshields at the court, said they will keep coming back to the courthouse until they get justice for their loved one.
Stone looked at the available information on the case and said without knowing a specific timeline of the crash, it is impossible to say whether this is a chargeable case.
"But it’s important to keep in mind that a prosecutor’s duty to charge a specific case hinges on the law and the facts of that case, without regard to the wishes of protestors. The fact pattern here is complicated by several potential intervening causes of the death," Stone said. "For example, if the prosecutor can prove that the multiple collisions occurred near simultaneously with one another, then there’s a greater chance of a successful prosecution for manslaughter. But if any single one of the drivers in the multi-car chain collision had time to avoid the collision but were unable to do so because of their speed, inattention or other factors, then the law considers that driver to be an intervening cause of death and the original DUI offense is no longer the legal cause of this tragic death. Irrespective of what actually happened, the prosecutor bears the burden of proving the case in court. A prosecutor also has an ethical duty to not bring a case that’s unsupported by the evidence. The evidence, whatever that might be, is the determining factor about whether charges are appropriate in this tragic case."
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