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State v. Luthringer

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

February 6, 2017


          Assigned on Briefs January 10, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Bedford County No. 18086 Forest A. Durard, Jr., Judge

         Wesley Howard Luthringer ("the Defendant") was convicted of two counts of aggravated vehicular homicide by a Bedford County jury. The trial court sentenced the Defendant to twenty-four years for each count to be served consecutively as a Range I standard offender. On appeal, the Defendant argues that the evidence was insufficient for a rational juror to find him guilty of aggravated vehicular homicide beyond a reasonable doubt and that the trial court erred in ordering his sentences to be served consecutively. After a thorough review of the record and case law, we affirm.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgments of the Circuit Court Affirmed

          Andrew Jackson Dearing, III (on appeal and at trial) and Michael J. Collins (at trial), Shelbyville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Wesley Howard Luthringer.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Leslie Price, Senior Counsel; Robert J. Carter, District Attorney General; and Michael D. Randles and Richard Cawley, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          Robert L. Holloway, Jr., J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Thomas T. Woodall, P.J., and Robert W. Wedemeyer, J., joined.



         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         On May 19, 2014, the Bedford County Grand Jury indicted the Defendant for two counts of aggravated vehicular homicide. On June 15, 2015, the Bedford County Grand Jury issued a superseding indictment charging the Defendant with two counts of vehicular homicide and four counts of aggravated vehicular homicide on alternative theories.

         Jury Trial

Joey Story testified that he was a paramedic supervisor for the Bedford County EMS. On February 24, 2014, he responded to a call regarding a motor vehicle accident on Highway 82 East and saw "a white either SUV or van-style vehicle upside down on its roof" in the ditch a few feet from the roadway. Mr. Story was unable to see anything from the driver's side because of the extensive damage. From the rear passenger's side, he saw "a victim [lying] on the roof of the vehicle." After determining that the victim did not have a pulse, he walked to the front of the vehicle and saw another victim "that was partially ejected [lying] prone, which is face down, in the dirt with the vehicle crushed on top of him." After Mr. Story determined that the two victims were deceased, he kicked out the glass of the rear passenger sliding door and entered the vehicle to continue checking for victims. After entering the vehicle, Mr. Story again checked the rear passenger victim's pulse and felt the bones in the victim's neck move, "[w]hich is a big indication that there's a fracture of the neck or the spinal column." He smelled "[a] strong smell of alcohol" inside the vehicle and saw "beer cans strewed [sic] through[out] the vehicle." Mr. Story then saw "a pool of blood towards the front of the vehicle[]" and found a third individual "in the driver's seat, upside down." He could not extract the individual from the driver's seat due to the damage of the driver's compartment. Mr. Story testified that this victim was breathing and moaning.

         Mr. Story and the other first responders began extricating the individual in the driver's seat by lifting the vehicle up and cutting out the driver's door. Mr. Story was then able to determine that the man in the driver's seat was upside down, wedged between the steering wheel and the dash, and wearing a seatbelt. Mr. Story cut the driver's seatbelt, maneuvered the victim out of the vehicle, and moved him by stretcher to a waiting ambulance. Mr. Story administered a saline solution through an IV to increase his blood pressure. After the individual in the driver's seat was taken to a hospital, Mr. Story walked around the accident scene and noticed beer cans, garbage, and personal items scattered around the wreck. Mr. Story also noticed that the vehicle had struck the trees near the accident "several feet" above the ground. Before the jury, Mr. Story identified the Defendant as the man in the driver's seat. Mr. Story testified that the two deceased victims were later identified as Ronald Neely, Jr. and Donald Lazas III.

          On cross-examination, Mr. Story testified that when the first responders rolled the wrecked vehicle over, beer cans rolled out of the vehicle. Mr. Story also testified that the Defendant was given "a 500 ML bolus of normal saline[]" through the IV. On redirect-examination, Mr. Story stated that the 500 ML of fluid was "rapidly induced, " meaning that he squeezed 500 ML of fluid into the IV as quickly as possible and left another 500 ML in the bag of saline fluid to continuously drip through the IV.

         Trooper Barry Qualls, Jr., testified that on February 24, 2014, he was dispatched to a crash scene on Highway 82 East. When Trooper Qualls arrived at the scene, he observed that only one vehicle was involved in the accident, a white Kia Sedona minivan. Trooper Qualls determined that the vehicle had been traveling eastbound on Highway 82, crossed the centerline, and left the road. Trooper Qualls testified that "[w]hen the vehicle went off the left-hand side of the roadway, you could actually see the marks up on the tree where the vehicle ha[d] actually struck the trees." Trooper Qualls testified that the marks on the trees from the vehicle were between five and seven feet above the ground. He testified that he observed Mr. Story enter the vehicle to confirm that the victims on the passenger side of the car were deceased, but he could not see the Defendant in the driver's seat from the outside of the vehicle. Once the fire department cut off the driver's door, Trooper Qualls observed that the driver's seatbelt was fastened. Trooper Qualls then identified the Defendant as the driver of the wrecked vehicle. After the Defendant was removed from the vehicle, Trooper Qualls attempted to ask him some questions to learn his identity. Trooper Qualls stated that he stood at the Defendant's shoulders, less than a foot and a half away, when he attempted to speak with the Defendant. Trooper Qualls testified that he "could smell a strong smell of alcoholic beverage coming from [the Defendant's] person." He ultimately identified the Defendant from the Defendant's driver's license. Trooper Qualls stated that he was able to identify Mr. Neely at the scene based upon Mr. Neely's driver's license, but he was unable to immediately identify Mr. Lazas. He also testified that the speed limit of the section of Highway 82 East where the accident occurred was fifty-five miles per hour.

         Trooper Timothy Hearn testified that he was assigned to the Critical Incident Response Team ("CIRT") of the Tennessee Highway Patrol. After the trial court admitted Trooper Hearn as an expert in crash reconstruction, Trooper Hearn testified that he investigated the crash at issue on February 24, 2014. When Trooper Hearn arrived at the scene around 9 a.m., another trooper showed Trooper Hearn the evidence that had been previously collected. Trooper Hearn photographed the scene and made a diagram of the crash using surveying equipment. He measured the curve in Highway 82 East where the crash was located to determine the critical speed, the maximum speed a car can travel on a curve without sliding. Trooper Hearn estimated the critical speed of the curve to be between sixty-two and sixty-seven miles per hour. Trooper Hearn testified that the tire marks depicted on the crash diagram were "load shifting, " indicating "a sudden jerk to the right on the steering wheel." Trooper Hearn did not find any skid or braking marks on the roadway, which indicated that the vehicle did not brake prior to driving off the left side of Highway 82 East. Trooper Hearn was unable to determine the speed of the vehicle at the time of the crash. Based on the after-crash diagram, Trooper Hearn testified that the vehicle was "11.9386 feet across the centerline" when the vehicle began sliding and created the tire marks. Trooper Hearn testified that the road was dry when the crash occurred. He testified that the reaction time for the average person is one and a half seconds, so the average person driving sixty miles per hour would travel about 130 feet before braking. Trooper Hearn also stated that he observed a second set of tire marks "in the dirt and grass area of the shoulder of the roadway." Trooper Hearn was unable to determine if these marks were made from a locked wheel or a rotating wheel. Trooper Hearn testified that he also observed a "gouge area" which was "a big area in the dirt where the grass and all has been move[d] and knocked out of the way." Trooper Hearn testified that after the vehicle created the gouge area, it became airborne and traveled approximately twenty-two feet before hitting three trees and coming to a stop. Trooper Hearn noted that the vehicle rotated while it was airborne so that "the top of the van, the roof and the hood, is what actually struck the side of that tree." Trooper Hearn estimated that the vehicle struck the first tree "about eight feet from the ground."

         Trooper Hearn also created a diagram of the wrecked vehicle, showing where the vehicle was damaged from striking the trees. Trooper Hearn then inspected the vehicle. Trooper Hearn testified that at the time of inspection the vehicle's transmission was in reverse, but he did not know when the vehicle was put in reverse. However, Trooper Hearn testified that the vehicle was not in reverse at the time of the crash. Trooper Hearn testified that the driver and front passenger seat airbags deployed and that the left front tire had become unseated from the rim in the crash. He also testified that the steering system was operable but appeared to have been damaged in the crash because the left front wheel and the "suspension components" were "severely damaged." Trooper Hearn testified that the seatbelts were operating correctly and that "the driver's seatbelt was in use at the time of the crash." Trooper Hearn testified that the brake pedal was in the up position, which "tends to mean [that] there's still fluid pressure in the system and that the brakes were functioning properly." Trooper Hearn did not find any mechanical malfunction in the vehicle during his inspection. Trooper Hearn obtained a certified copy of the vehicle's registration and determined that ...

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