A truck driver charged with killing six people in a 2015 Interstate 75 crash is not standing trial next week, as planned, after a roundtable debate Tuesday among public defenders, state prosecutors and government attorneys over a potential witness.
Though attorneys ultimately reached an agreement in the Benjamin Brewer case, they weren't sure they'd be ready by Monday's trial date, forcing Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole to postpone it for the second time this year.
Attorneys are no longer traveling Thursday to Nashville to select out-of-town jurors and will hammer out the details of their agreement before Oct. 17, their return date to court. It's unclear if they'll pick a new trial date then, or if Brewer will stand trial this year for allegedly plowing into stopped traffic on I-75 in Ooltewah while under the influence on June 25, 2015.
In the meantime, crash victims and law enforcement witnesses must wait again.
"We have victims' families coming from all over the United States," Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston said in court.
All of this stems back to June, when public defenders say they learned that a federal facility tested Brewer's blood for a second time in 2015, finding different amounts of methamphetamine in his system than the Tennesee Bureau of Investigation reported. Because the evidence went to the heart of the state's case for impairment, defenders said, they wanted to call a federal employee who oversaw the test to the witness stand. Poole then canceled the June 19 trial and set a new date for Sept. 25.
During the summer, Little said, his team summoned the employee based on instructions from his boss, a senior attorney with the Federal Aviation Administration. The federal government, however, said he didn't follow the right procedure and asked Little to withdraw his request. The issue worked its way to Leah McClanahan, an assistant U.S. attorney out of Knoxville, who said Tuesday that federal law didn't allow Little to call the employee during trial anyway.
"Even though his client faces a substantial sentence, he didn't follow the procedure," McClanahan said. "He now wants to cast the United States and the state of Tennessee as bad actors in what has become a huge traffic jam just before trial."
Little had two options, she explained, and both would delay the trial. He could have called the employee to testify before trial. Or he could depose the employee, asking him questions with attorneys on both sides present. Little said he was open to a deposition last week, around the same time McClanahan filed a motion asking Poole to quash the subpoena for a few reasons.
One was the concept of sovereign immunity, in which the federal government must consent to being sued. Since the United States wasn't a party to the Brewer case, McClanahan said, Poole couldn't rule against her. If he did, she would move the issue to federal court, where 50-year-old-plus case law supported her argument.
"If our motion is denied, we will move to federal court," she said, "and the trial will not go forward."
Little insisted he didn't want to cancel the trial date, but explained that he didn't follow the right procedure because of what the employee's boss told him. He said he was amazed that a federal administrative law seemed to trump his client's constitutionally protected right to confront all evidence against him.
"It seems like to me that the Sixth Amendment has more power than federal administrative law does," he said. "What this law does is prevents this defendant from his right to compel testimony," he said.
Ultimately, McClanahan agreed to contact the Federal Aviation Administration and try to make someone from the lab available for a limited deposition, Pinkston's spokeswoman, Melydia Clewell, said afterwards.
"It's our hope that by Oct. 17, the deposition will have taken place and the judge will set another trial date," she said.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.
Correction: The Times Free Press referred to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, a state lab, as the Tennessee Bureau of Information. We apologize for the confusion.