Ithaca, N.Y. — Attorneys of a teen fighting manslaughter charges in a fatal 2013 crash say police used “junk science” to blame their client for the death of two people, according to recently filed court documents.
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The defense of James Crosby, 19, argues that police committed several errors in reconstructing the crash scene of the New Year’s Eve case. Crosby’s passenger, Derek Nichols, and a passenger in the other car, Kathy Lattimore, were both killed in the Newfield crash.
Crosby’s lawyers say state police erred in their calculations of Crosby’s speed. Investigator Travis Webster’s reconstruction report concluded that Crosby was going between 84 and 90 miles per hour in the moments before the crash.
Facts of the case
At 5 p.m. on New Years Eve 2013, James Crosby drove he and his friend Derek Nichols from Crosby’s home in the Chemung County town of Van Etten. The two were headed to Nichols’ home in Spencer.
While driving Northbound, Crosby’s Monte Carlo crossed the dividing line and collided with a Jeep which was heading southbound in the other lane.
In addition to the deaths of Nichols and Lattimore, Samantha and Eugene Aarnio — who were also in the Jeep — were both seriously injured in the crash
Prosecution: Crosby was being “reckless”
Crosby was charged with two counts of manslaughter in the 2nd degree, assault in the 2nd, assault in the 3rd, reckless endangerment in the 2nd, and reckless driving. Assistant Tompkins County District Attorney Eliza Filipowski is seeking a 4-12 year prison sentence for Crosby.
“Recklessness” is the key word in the case for the prosecution. If Crosby was being reckless, he is a criminal.
In her summary of facts, Filipowski writes “the defendant operated a vehicle in a reckless and erratic manner, at a high rate of speed and passing other vehicles in no-pass areas.”
In order to establish the “erratic” and “reckless” nature of Crosby’s driving, Filopowski relied on information provided by Inv. Webster of the NYS Police Collision Reconstruction Unit. Webster produced a Forensic Report based on evidence from the collision scene to conclude that Crosby was going between 84 and 90 mph at the moment of the crash.
In the report, Webster included information about the location and orientation of the wrecked vehicles, gouging marks in the concrete, and the position of vehicle debris.
Webster also noted that the speedometer needle of Crosby’s vehicle indicated approximately 90 mph when it was inspected after the crash.
The defense: Crash reconstruction is invalid
The defense for Crosby has moved to exclude the crash-scene reconstruction produced by Webster. In support of this motion, William C. Fischer, a forensic consultant, has submitted a sworn affidavit in which he sharply criticizes Inv. Webster’s reconstruction of the crash.
In his affadavit, Fischer makes it clear that he is not attempting to perform his own reconstruction of the crash scene. Fischer says his only goal is to evaluate, based on his own expertise in forensics, the 135-page report produced by Investigator Fischer.
Fischer calls Webster’s report “junk science.” He claims that Inv. Webster used “wholly inappropriate equations and made assumptions to supply missing values for which there was no physical evidence.”
Fischer implies that when Webster began his reconstruction, he started by assuming that Crosby was traveling very fast. Fischer suggests that the rest of Webster’s reconstruction was meant to “prove” what Inv. Webster had already assumed — namely, that the speedometer reading in Crosby’s car was accurate.
Webster says he based his evaluation of the crash scene on factors such as the weight of each vehicle, the skid marks on the street, the gauges in the concrete, and the final resting location of the vehicle bodies and parts.
But, according to the Fischer’s analysis, the values and equations which Webster used were based on sloppy and invalid forensic technique. Fischer says that because the relevant variables cannot be measured, calculated, or reasonably assumed, Webster’s reconstruction was invalid.
Webster calculated the speed of Crosby’s vehicle by using a formula describing the Conservation of Linear Motion (COLM) – a Newtonian law of physics.
In the context of a crash, the COLM implies that the incoming speed of one object — e.g., a car — will be a function of:
1. the incoming speed of the other object
2. the outgoing speeds of each object
3. the weight of each object
4. the angle of impact
5. the type of impact (head on, off-center, glancing, etc.)
In order calculate Crosby’s speed, Inv. Webster must either have been able to measure these variables, or calculate them from other data found at the crash scene.
In his affidavit, Fischer grants Webster the weight of the vehicles. As for many of the other variables involved, Fischer says that they are either “wild guesses” or “there is a lot of paperwork missing.”
How fast was the Jeep going?
Fischer takes particular issue with Webster’s calculation of the speed of the oncoming Jeep.
In his report Webster writes, “as part of the [COLM] calculation, the impact velocity of Vehicle #2 [the Jeep] was assigned at a range of between 40-45 MPH, utilizing the collision scene dynamics as well as the throw distance of the headlight assembly that was ejected from vehicle #2 upon impact.”
By measuring the relative location of the the headlight assembly to the location of the crash, Webster says he was able to calculate the speed at which the Jeep was traveling. By inputting this speed into the COLM equation, Webster was then able to calculate the speed of Crosby’s vehicle.
In response to this claim, Fisher writes, “Inv. Webster has no way to compute the impact speed of […] the Jeep based on the the physical evidence.”
One example of the investigator’s mistakes, according to Fischer, relates to the headlight found at the crash scene.
Webster used the location of the detached headlight to calculate the speed of the Jeep by using a specific equation – the “Searle equation.” Fischer points out that this equation is designed to be used with pedestrian, not headlight, projectiles. The improper use of the Searle equation (in addition to his other mistakes) invalidates, Fischer says, the calculation of Crosby’s speed.
Because of mistakes like these, Fischer dismisses Webster’s “utilization of collision scene dynamics” as wholly inconclusive.
As for the 40-45 mph figure for the oncoming Jeep, Fischer says “[Webster] simply assigned it, or made it up out of whole cloth. Why the range 40-45? Because those values produce a speed range of between 85 and 92 mph, which brackets the value he interpreted as an impact speed for Vehicle 1, based on the observed position of the indicator needle on the broken speedometer of that Monte Carlo!”
From there, Fischer goes on to argue that the speedometer reading in Crosby’s car is not reliable crash-scene evidence.
Fischer writes, “the spurious hypothesis [that the speed is accurate] is belied by better evidence: the speedometer is obviously damaged.”
Citing Fischer’s affidavit, defense lawyer Joseph Joch writes that “although the jargon in Webster’s report has the ring of scientific reliability and scientific underpinning, it is actually meaningless.”
Judge Rowley now has to decide whether Webster’s crash reconstruction is misleading and should be thrown out, or whether it is information pertinent to the case and should be presented in the trial.