Wednesday, March 25, 2009

So Grim, So True, So Real

The only time other time I had been summoned for Jury Duty was when I was in college and away from home, so I didn't have to serve. I was called on Monday and, hearing stories from my friends, settled in for a boring day of reading and maybe checking Facebook a couple of times. Around an hour and a half in, I was called with around fifty other people to go to a courtroom. The judge asked a bunch of qualifying/disqualifying questions and a number of people who answered yes to those questions were called up and either seated or excused. When they got to eleven jurors and after all of the excuses were used, all of the people who had answered these questions were done. There were maybe twenty-five people left in the room for one chair and two alternate spots, and the court was ready to call up people randomly. Mine was the first name called. The trial ensued and as I recount the events in narrative fashion (leaving out any names even if they're on public record), I'll leave it at a point where the reader can decide a verdict and then tomorrow I'll finish with actual thoughts on the trial process and let you know how it was decided.


Late one night, last year, a woman was driving home from work. It was a clear night and as she drove down an unlit and winding country road, she noticed headlights coming up behind her. She preferred to drive slowly and while the car behind her may have been going the speed limit, she had a bad feeling and decided to pull over to let them pass. She pulled to the side and two cars drove past. The first was driven by two young girls, also home-bound after work.

These two girls had noticed a few miles back a large, dark-colored sedan behind them when it had either hit a bump and its lights had raised up or it had turned on its brights for a second. They thought it might have been an undercover cop, so they made sure to drive the speed limit. They drove along; the car behind them kept its distance and it gave them no reason to pay other notice. There was an upwards slope, leading to a blind curve. The girls came up and through the curve and saw another car coming towards them. The car seemed to be driving a little faster than they were and it was cutting it a bit close, straddling the yellow line. They were a little worried since there was no shoulder on this stretch of road -- to their right was an embankment covered in trees, to their left the other car's lane and then a guardrail. They swerved a little to their right to make sure they had room and they passed by the oncoming car. That's when they heard a boom.

It was so loud that they thought they may have been hit, but they quickly realized that wasn't the case. They pulled over, got out, and turned around to see the most horrific thing they had ever seen. The car behind them was mangled and spun around to face the direction from which it had been coming. The oncoming car was absolutely crushed on the driver's side of the front and had spun back, its tail end coming to rest up on the guardrail and then sliding down the rail as much as eight feet. The girls ran towards the scene. The first woman, after pulling back on the road, had also heard the crash and raced there to see if she could help. Around the same time, a police officer just happened to be driving up and, seeing the wreckage, pulled over and called the fire and rescue team.

There were screams coming from both cars. One of the teenagers ran to the car on the guardrail and found a female driver pinned by the crushed front end and not breathing well. She helped a seven-year-old girl out of the passenger's seat. The police officer came up and found that the passenger sitting to the rear of the driver's seat, a middle-aged man, was already dead, crushed. The first woman helped a seventeen-year-old boy out of the other side of the rear seat and then made her way to the other car. There, the male driver was pinned and screaming that he was going to die. The fire and rescue team arrived and was able to take the roof and doors off of each car to extract the drivers. The female driver died shortly after being taken out of the car and the male driver was taken to the hospital for treatment.

Obviously, we learned this story through the testimony of a number of witnesses, none of whom had seen what happened in the moment immediately preceding impact. Most of them cried as they testified; none affected me more than the police officer who lost it as he described the female driver, the mother of the two children and girlfriend of the deceased passenger, and how she attempted to console her children with what breath she had left. Horrible.

The male driver had his blood tested at the hospital and police forensics would later confirm that he had a .13 blood alcohol concentration. The accident reconstruction team pored over the site, taking copious pictures and marking every scratch and piece of debris on the roadway. It was determined that the impact had occurred as many as three feet on the side of the road on which the female driver rode. The two cars had hit head-on, with the point of impact being right in front of each of the drivers. The accident reconstruction specialist explained using charts, easels, pointers, and so on. To refute, the defense called their own consultant, obviously slick and trained at talking to juries. He did what he could to bring any kind of doubt as to where the cars were immediately before impact. Was the female driver on the wrong side and the male driver was swerving to avoid, when he hit her?

The final complication came in an autopsy report that was entered into evidence. The female driver had a .11 blood alcohol content. She was also driving above the legal level.

There were eleven separate charges, ranging from driving while impaired all the way up to vehicular manslaughter. In order to decide on these charges, we essentially had to answer the following questions. I've given you all of the evidence, so you decide:
  1. Was the male driver (the defendant) negligent in his driving (that is, was he acting differently than the way a reasonable person would act)?
  2. Did the alcohol have substantial impact upon the defendant's driving?
  3. Was the defendant "grossly negligent" in his driving (that is, was he acting far beyond the way a reasonable person would act)?
  4. Most importantly, was the defendant's negligence the sole cause of the accident and, subsequently, the deaths?

Leave any answers and thoughts in the comments.


Anonymous said...

1. Yes.
2. Yes.
3. Based on the evidence presented, where he's riding too close to the car in front of him, he's 3 feet across the line, and he's 50% above the legal limit, yes.
4. No. If the other driver was also over the limit, I can't say with certainty that she was not at fault, at least in part.


Betsy said...

Based on the testimony as it was related in your post, my answers are:

1. yes
2. yes
3. yes
4. probably, but since no one who saw it testified, it is impossible to tell. I'd be curious to know what the teenager or the young girl saw, but having just lost their mother, they may not be able to testify with reliable accuracy.