Trial begins for truck driver accused in deadly interstate crash

Trial begins for truck driver accused in deadly interstate crash

January 21st, 2018 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

Gallery: Ben Brewer trial begins

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Nearly three years after a semitractor-trailer slammed into stopped traffic on Interstate 75, killing six people and injuring others, a Kentucky trucker is scheduled to stand trial Monday in Chattanooga for allegedly causing the carnage under the influence of methamphetamine.

Impairment, contradictory blood tests and a decades-old evaluation that authorities use to predict which drugs someone ingested will be centerpieces of debate when Benjamin Brewer, 42, says "not guilty" during his scheduled trial in Hamilton County Criminal Court.

There is plenty of information out-of-town jurors from Nashville will not hear because of regular pretrial negotiations, and attorneys have debated essential issues until the last minute.

As recently as two weeks ago, Brewer's defenders questioned whether it was necessary for jurors to hear about him falsifying his log books, which truck drivers are required to maintain to track their hours. Nor do they want any mention of a $166 citation Brewer received in Florida for sideswiping a vehicle just days before he crashed in Tennessee.

"The fact there are false log books doesn't have any relevance to what caused the accident," public defender Jay Underwood argued. "They don't show whether he was intoxicated or not, they don't show anything about what caused the accident. They would just [give] the jury the impression that Mr. Brewer's a dishonest person."

Timeline:

June 25, 2015: Brewer crashes into slowed traffic on Interstate 75, is detained on scene and given a drug test and is allowed to return to Kentucky. Six die and several others are injured.

Aug. 3, 2015: A Hamilton County grand jury indicts Brewer on charges of vehicular homicide, reckless aggravated assault, driving under the influence of a narcotic, speeding and violation of motor carrier regulations. He is extradited to Tennessee shortly thereafter.

September 2015: Brewer makes his first court appearance and receives a court-appointed defense attorney. Crash victims have begun filing personal injury lawsuits.

October 2016: As the case winds through court, the National Transportation Safety Board releases its final report and concludes driver fatigue and drug use led to the nine-vehicle crash.

February 2017: Brewer’s attorneys ask to suppress several pieces of evidence, including his blood test, saying officers detained him on scene without a warrant.

May 2017: Judge Don Poole rules against that request but says jurors don’t need to hear about some of the miscellaneous items in Brewer’s tractor-trailer. Attorneys also agree not to mention Brewer’s prior employment or drug history.

June 12, 2017: Attorneys travel to Nashville to pick an out-of-town jury, agreeing that extensive media coverage has made Chattanoogans too biased to hear the case.

June 2017: Right before trial on June 17, defense attorneys learn that a federal lab in Oklahoma also tested Brewer’s blood and found a different level of methamphetamine than the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported back in 2015.

June 19, 2017: Judge Poole cancels the trial and sets a new date on Sept. 25 to give defense attorneys more time to investigate the second test.

September 2017: Brewer’s defense say government attorneys want to block their effort to call a federal employee to the witness stand to explain the second test. They reach an agreement to depose the employee beforehand, but Poole has to cancel the Sept. 25 date.

October 2017: The judge resets the trial date to Jan. 22 and says attorneys will pick a new jury from Nashville.

Jan. 18, 2018: Attorneys pick a 16-person jury, with four alternates, after a day of questioning.

Jan. 22, 2018: Proceedings start today in Hamilton County Criminal Court Division III. Jurors will be sequestered throughout the week to avoid outside communication.

Criminal Court Judge Don Poole agreed to sever that count, a misdemeanor, from Brewer's other criminal charges. On Thursday, attorneys successfully picked a 16-person jury in Nashville, allowing the trial to begin at 9 a.m. Monday in Poole's courtroom.

All of this is pretty normal in a high-profile criminal proceeding that involves several witnesses, law enforcement agencies and crash victims who also have outstanding claims for civil damages.

"When you look at a trial and all the potential evidence that comes in, most of it is pretty clear to experienced attorneys what is admissible and what isn't," said Bill Speek, a defense attorney who is familiar with the case but not involved.

"There's some evidence where a judge might have to decide," Speek said. "For instance, in the Brewer case, his firing from prior employment for drug use would clearly be one the judge would exclude, so the parties just agreed not to get into it."

Prosecutors say Brewer was driving over the federal time limit for commercial motorists, was high on methamphetamine and never hit the brakes when he crashed into slowed traffic near the Ooltewah exit on I-75 on June 25, 2015.

Prosecutors say jurors need to hear what happened three days earlier, too, even though defenders aren't convinced it's relevant.

Brewer left London, Ky., for Cool Runnings Express on June 22, 2015, but his truck broke down as he picked up a load and he had to return to London for repairs. According to news reports, mechanics fixed his air compressor, which generates a sufficient air supply to properly operate the braking system.

After a second repair, Brewer finally began his trip to Florida, which he reached on June 24 after being on duty for about 45 consecutive hours. That's beyond the limits set by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. A charge of violation of motor carrier regulations related to this was severed Thursday during jury selection.

"[The whole story] is relevant," Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston said recently, "because going over those hours can create driver fatigue, and then we have the inclusion of meth in his system, so the complete story needs to be told."

How much meth was in Brewer's system? That's another argument public defenders have raised.

Before Brewer's scheduled trial in June 2017, defenders learned at the last minute that a second federal lab in Oklahoma tested Brewer's blood and found about half the level of meth that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported.

Defenders have also questioned the drug recognition evaluation that authorities used to predict Brewer had ingested a stimulant and a depressant. As Underwood pointed out, authorities were partially incorrect because Brewer never had depressants in his system.

Underwood argued the evaluation, developed by the Los Angeles Police Department, John Hopkins University and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the 1980s, isn't scientifically reliable enough to introduce to jurors.

Poole ruled against defenders and said jurors can hear about it, but some other defense attorneys said there's still a ripe argument about how much weight should be given to the evaluation.

"The DRE exam is a very specific 12-step process," said attorney Andrea Hayduk. "I have been to several seminars across the country dealing with DRE tests and officers often do not follow all of the procedures exactly, which I would argue invalidates the tests."

Brewer faces six counts of vehicular homicide, four counts of reckless aggravated assault, and three other counts of driving violations.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

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