In a court appearance made possible by a rare waiver of diplomatic immunity, an embassy official of the Republic of Georgia was charged with involuntary manslaughter and four counts of aggravated assault Thursday for his part in the death of a Washington area teenager in a traffic accident last month.
Gueorgui Makharadze, the second-ranking diplomat at the embassy, expressed “deepest sorrow” for his role in multi-car pileup that killed 16-year-old Joviane Waltrick and injured four other people. But Makharadze suggested that his trial will demonstrate mitigating circumstances and asked the public for understanding.
The case of Makharadze, 35, became an instant talk-show topic here in early January when public outrage grew with the realization that he enjoyed diplomatic immunity from criminal charges in this country, as do U.S. diplomats who serve overseas.
But Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister who became Georgia’s president after the breakup of the Soviet Union, announced recently that he would waive Makharadze’s immunity so the diplomat could be charged and stand trial here. It was an act that won instant praise from officials of the State Department, which has never waived similar protection for American diplomats.
“There are very few instances in diplomatic history where a government has lifted diplomatic immunity in a case like this,” State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said earlier this month. But he added: “This is an unusual case.”
The accident in which Waltrick died seemed particularly egregious. Police said the car driven by Makharadze, which officials estimated was traveling 80 mph, slammed into a smaller vehicle at a busy Washington intersection. The second auto was knocked into the air and crashed onto a third car in which the girl was a passenger.
Makharadze allegedly invoked his diplomatic privilege at the scene to avoid taking a Breathalyzer test. Arresting officers suspected that he was drunk, but associates later claimed that he had had only “a couple glasses of wine” a few hours earlier
Makharadze, wearing an open-collar white shirt and a tweed jacket, surrendered to authorities early Thursday in the company of his attorneys. He appeared several hours later in Superior Court for the District of Columbia to face the charges.
Federal prosecutors agreed to a request by Makharadze’s lawyers that, pending trial, he be released to the custody of Georgian Embassy officials here. He surrendered his diplomatic passport and must report on a weekly basis to the court’s pretrial services office.
His lawyers, Paul Perito and E. Lawrence Barcella, said they were shocked at the severity of the charges, which carry a combined maximum punishment of 70 years in prison.
They added that the affidavit in support of Makharadze’s arrest warrant “fails to reveal that a number of witnesses have stated that Mr. Makharadze consumed only a moderate amount of alcohol during a more than three-hour working business meeting.”
The lawyers’ statement suggested that the brakes on the car driven by the diplomat may not have been working properly, although this cannot be “established conclusively,” they said.
A hospital test later showed Makharadze’s blood-alcohol level was 0.185, which is above the 0.10 level at which a driver is considered intoxicated. However, his lawyers said in their statement that the hospital “did not use proper procedures and tests to extract and preserve the blood that was drawn.”