Attorney for truck driver in fatal Washington crash files motion for new hearing

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 7:00pm

ROCKLAND – The attorney for a truck driver who was convicted of manslaughter for causing a 2016 crash while driving intoxicated that killed two people, has now filed a motion for an evidentiary hearing less than one month after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld the conviction.

Jeremy Pratt, of Camden, one of the three attorneys for Randle Weddle, 57, filed the motion Feb. 10 in Knox County Unified Court.

The basis for Pratt’s motion is a recent comment made by Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber in a Bangor Daily News article after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld the manslaughter conviction Jan. 28.

Although the justices ruled that Weddle’s Fourth Amendment rights, “were violated by the warrantless drawing of his blood at the scene of the fatal accident, the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule applies.”

The justices also concluded that the trial court did not err by denying Weddle’s motion to suppress the results of the blood test.

Pratt states in his motion that Macomber said in the BDN article, published on Jan. 29, that, “he anticipated Maine’s law requiring that drivers in fatal crashes submit to blood tests would be eventually overturned.”

Macomber referred to a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Missouri vs. McNeely.

According to Wikipedia, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case on an appeal from the Supreme Court of Missouri, regarding exceptions to the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution under exigent circumstances.

“The United States Supreme Court ruled that police must generally obtain a warrant before subjecting a drunken-driving suspect to a blood test, and that the natural metabolism of blood alcohol does not establish a per se exigency that would justify a blood draw without consent,” it states in the online encyclopedia.

Macomber said in the news article that he created a warrant form that officers could fill out at the scene of a fatal crash to show there was probable cause for a warrant, Pratt stated in this motion.

“If this quotation is correct it directly contradicts the argument that the state made to the Law Court regarding the good faith exception and would eliminate the good faith exception in the Law Court relied upon,” Pratt also said.

The defendant is now requesting an evidentiary hearing to explore this new discovered evidence in trial, according to the motion.

“Additionally, the defendant requests time to engage in investigation prior to any evidentiary hearing,” Pratt said. “The defendant will be seeking from the Attorney General’s office a copy of the form that BDN claims that Assistant Attorney General Macomber created for law enforcement, information about who the form was distributed to, all Attorney General Office memos and correspondence regarding Missouri and McNeely.”

The state filed a response Feb. 14 in Knox County Unified Court to deny the defendant’s motion.

Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Baroody, who filed the response, made several claims including that an attorney’s opinion about the state of the law is not evidence and the motion relies upon “pure speculation” based on an informal statement of legal opinion made by an Assistant Attorney General to a news reporter after the Law Court affirmed the case.

The state also contends that the defendant’s motion should be denied because it fails to meet the requirements of Rule 33, of the Maine Rules of Unified Criminal Procedure, and is unsupported by relevant caselaw.

“Rule 33 permits the court to grant a new trial if required in the interest of justice and requires that a motion based on any ground other than newly discovered evidence shall be made within 14 days after the verdict of finding of guilty,” the state said in their response.

A Knox County jury returned a guilty verdict of manslaughter on Jan. 30, 2018 after a five-day trial.

The state also claims in its response that an evidentiary hearing would only waste time and judicial resources.

Justice William Stokes, who imposed the 30-year prison sentence on Weddle, will be making the ruling about the defendant’s latest request for a new hearing.

In Jan. 2018, Weddle was convicted on all 15 charges, including two counts of manslaughter, three counts of aggravated operating under the influence, two counts of driving to endanger and eight counts of violating various commercial vehicle violations.   

Pratt had filed an appeal April 11, 2018 with the Maine Supreme Court. Pratt said April 17 in an email that the basis for the appeal will be the warrantless roadside blood draw. 

According to the court document, Weddle argued, “that M.R.S. § 2522(2) (2018), which directs law enforcement officers to test the blood of all drivers involved in a fatal, or likely fatal, motor vehicle accident is unconstitutional on its face because it purports to authorize unreasonable searches and seizures in the absence of probable cause, which is inherently unreasonable and therefore in violation of the Fourth  Amendment to the United States Constitution.”       

The justices agreed that there were extenuating circumstances in Weddle’s case for the officer to act in good faith and obtaining a blood sample without probable cause or warrant.

Two justices dissented from the majority on the ruling that the state law is unconstitutional. They noted in their comments that is “physically impossible” for the same sample to be obtained later because the passage of time has an affect on an operator’s blood-alcohol content.

On March 23, 2018, Justice William Stokes imposed a full sentence of 30 years in prison on Weddle with all but 25 years suspended and four years of probation. 

The maximum sentence for a manslaughter conviction is 30 years. The state had initially offered Weddle a plea deal of 30 years in prison with all but 20 years suspended, which he rejected.  

District Attorney Jonathan Liberman prosecuted the case with Assistant District Attorney Jeff Baroody. Weddle was represented by attorneys Christopher MacLean, Jeremy Pratt and Laura Shaw, all of Camden.  

Weddle was driving a 1998 Freightliner tractor-trailer, carrying a load of lumber he had picked up in Searsmont, on March 18, 2016, when the crash occurred. He was traveling west on Route 17, reportedly heading back to Tennessee, when he lost control of the truck. 

According to eyewitness accounts recorded at the courthouse, both of the crash itself and the truck driving along Route 17, the truck was driving above the posted 55 mph speed limit, and at least one other eastbound driver nearly missed being hit by the trailer as it crossed the center line into the eastbound lane before the crash. 

That driver, Wilkes Harper, told Knox County Sheriff's Deputy Paul Spear that he, "observed in his rear mirror the trailer enter the oncoming lane and roll over." 

According to the accident report, 74-year-old Paul Fowles, of Owls Head, was driving a 2009 Chevrolet Colorado pickup truck and was the first vehicle to be struck by Weddle's tractor-trailer as it rounded a curve and the trailer began to roll. Fowles' truck went off the road and came to rest in a ditch. He was pronounced dead at the scene. 

The next vehicle struck was a 2014 Nissan sedan driven by 51-year-old Tracy Cook, of Union. Cook's Nissan was struck by the trailer, rolled once and then struck a 2015 Kia sedan being driven by 33-year-old Tracy Morgan, of Washington. Cook's Nissan ultimately came to rest back on its wheels in the field off the road, and Morgan was able to take evasive action and avoid being struck by the trailer. 

Christina Torres-York, 45, of Warren, was driving a 1998 Chrysler van and was the last vehicle struck by the trailer and the load of lumber being hauled by the truck. The Chrysler was pushed back into the field, where it immediately burst into flames. Torres-York was the second person to die in the accident.

The Freightliner then rolled onto its roof and continued to slide on its roof down the road before going off the left hand side of the roadway. It came to rest down another embankment between the road and the field. 

Morgan escaped injury, as did a passenger in Weddle's truck, identified as Lowell Babb, of Virginia. Cook sustained injuries in the accident, as did Weddle, who had to be extricated from the cab of the Freightliner. 

In the affidavit in support of Weddle’s arrest for manslaughter and criminal OUI, Spear said that members of the Maine State Police Crash Reconstruction Unit responded to assist in the investigation. He said that Specialist Michael Pion reconstructed the crash and concluded that Weddle was driving too fast, that he lost control of the trailer and that weight shift of the trailer's load of lumber caused it to flip as it entered the oncoming lane, hitting the line of oncoming traffic.

Using a propensity to roll formula, Pion calculated the speed of the tractor-trailer unit when it rolled to be 69.4 miles per hour, said Spear, in the report. 

A motor carrier inspector with the Maine State Police Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Unit, who also responded to the crash site that evening, inspected the tractor-trailer unit and found its physical condition was not a contributing factor in the crash.

But the inspector, Daniel Russell, did determine that the unit was traveling at approximately 73 mph at the beginning of the crash event, "Immediately before that, he was driving as much as 81 mph." 

The continuing investigation determined that Weddle's right to operate a motor vehicle in Virginia was revoked, and his right to operate a motor vehicle was suspended in Louisiana; however, he had an active Tennessee driver's license. 

At the crash scene, while emergency responders were working to extricate Weddle from inside his truck, where he was pinned, a firefighter and another Knox County Sheriff's Deputy reported detecting the odor of "intoxicants" coming from Weddle's breath. They were not able to further investigate at that time, said Spear in the affidavit, because several medical providers were treating Weddle for his injuries. Knox County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Matt Elwell oversaw a blood sample drawn from Mr. Weddle while was in the ambulance, said Spear in the affidavit. 

That sample, and another taken at the hospital, were later analyzed for alcohol content. The sample taken in the ambulance after the crash showed .09 grams of alcohol per 100 ml of blood, and the later sample at the hospital in Lewiston showed .073 grams of alcohol per 100 ml of blood. 

Spear said that when Weddle was interviewed after the crash, while he was at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, he said he had been feeling ill after picking up the load of lumber and took several medications, including Lortab, which contains acetaminophen and hydrocodone. Spear said in the affidavit that further analysis of the blood samples showed it in fact contained hydrocodone in a level "consistent with recent use," along with the alcohol. 

In July 2017, there was a hearing on the defense’s motion to suppress statements made by Weddle following the fatal crash. The motion states that statements he made to law enforcement officers after the fatal crash were made without a reading of his Miranda rights. Also, statements made by him while he was at Central Maine Medical Center were involuntary, according to the documents filed in Knox County Unified Court. 

The judge ruled that the evidence was admissible at the trial. 

Sarah Shepherd can be reached at  

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