A vehicular manslaughter trial in Ithaca, New York turned heated last week when the lead prosecutor accused the defendant’s car accident expert witness of being a “mercenary” willing to testify to anything for money. While every expert witness testifying at trial does so for money, the contentious back-and-forth highlighted concerns that some experts prioritize financial interests over relevant testimony.
Vehicular Manslaughter Case Relies on Accident Reconstruction Analysis
Last New Year’s Eve, a Chevrolet Monte Carlo driven by 19-year-old James Crosby collided with a Jeep driven by Samantha Aarnio. The collision killed one passenger in each vehicle: Kathy Lattimore, Aarnio’s 67-year-old mother-in-law, and Derek Nichols, Crosby’s 20-year-old friend, and, after investigation, Crosby was charged with vehicular manslaughter for both deaths. He is also charged with second-degree assault, third-degree assault, second-degree reckless endangerment and reckless driving for his role in causing the accident. Judge John Rowley is presiding over a bench trial that will not use a jury to come to a verdict, and prosecutors are asking that Crosby be found guilty and sentenced to 4 – 12 years in jail.
In his defense, Crosby’s attorneys have taken issue with the police report detailing the investigation. The results of the police report suggest that Crosby’s Monte Carlo was traveling at a speed between 84 – 91 mph before colliding with Aarnio’s Jeep, which was traveling at 45 mph. Pointing to this data, prosecutors have argued that Crosby was clearly in violation of traffic laws and was moving at such an unsafe speed that he was acting recklessly in such a way that he should have known would endanger the lives of others. Concluding that his clearly reckless actions were the direct cause of two deaths in the resulting accident, prosecutors relied on the accident diagnosis found in the police report to convince Judge Rowley that Crosby is guilty of two counts manslaughter.
William Fischer, a crash reconstruction expert witness hired by the defense, disagreed with the information found in the report and took police investigator’s to task for shoddy and incomplete analysis of the accident.
Defense Car Accident Expert Testifies During Manslaughter Trial
Mr. Fischer began his testimony by informing the Court that his independent investigation concluded that Crosby was traveling at 55 mph – a speed much closer to the posted speed limit. Further, Fischer testified that Aarnio’s Jeep was moving much slower than 45 mph, meaning that the accident happened at a far lesser speed than reported by police. Fischer directly contradicted the police report’s analysis of the speed of the accident, allowing defense attorneys to argue that Crosby was not driving at a negligently high rate of speed prior to the crash.
Additionally, Mr. Fischer found fault in the police investigation because officers declined to perform skid tests at the scene. Saying that police need to gather an estimation of the coefficient of friction in order to get accurate speed tests, Fischer called the investigation incomplete and prone to error. Calling the police’s tactics a “bastardized” test of determining speed, the defense expert witness claimed that his calculations, which were more complete, represented a reliable estimate of the speed of the two vehicles.
Fischer also testified that a lack of deformity in the filaments of the rear taillights suggest that Aarnio’s Jeep may not have had its lights on at the time of the crash – a relevant fact considering the accident happened 19 minutes after sunset. Taken together, Fischer’s car accident reconstruction expert testimony targeted potential flaws in the prosecution’s analysis which suggested Crosby was driving negligently at the time of the accident. By calling Fisher, Crosby’s defense team attempted to introduce reasonable doubt to the question of his negligence, hoping to convince Judge Rowley that manslaughter is not an appropriate charge.
Prosecutors Challenge Defense Car Expert Witness
In response to Fischer’s criticism of the police accident reconstruction, lead prosecutor Eliza Filipowski challenged the car accident expert on a number of points. First, Filipowski pointed out that Fischer has been openly critical of skid tests, raising questions about why he condemned the police for not using one in their calculation of Crosby’s speed. Although Fischer responded that any test of friction would be better than none, Filipowski followed her line of questioning by contrasting the techniques used by police investigators, which relied on electronic optical measurements of speed, to Fischer’s calculations of speed, which featured an inaccuracy that the defense expert could not adequately explain.
Finally, Filipowski attacked Fisher’s credentials, which have not been updated recently, and challenged his history of testifying only for defendants in car accident reconstruction cases. Pointing out that Fischer, who was paid $12,000 for his expert witness testimony, failed to provide a complete or consistent critique of police tactics or an accurate reconstruction method, Filipowski attacked the reliability and credibility of the defense expert in an effort to promote the state’s case for a manslaughter conviction.