WEST JORDAN Evidence of possible distracted and impaired driving by the victim in a negligent homicide case against a Taylorsville police officer will be allowed in court.
Friday's ruling by 3rd District Court Judge Robert Adkins is another blow to the state's case against officer Joseph Corbett.
Corbett was charged with negligent homicide in the death of 27-year-old John Terry Douglas of Tooele. He was responding with lights and sirens to help other officers involved in a high-speed chase at about 12:40 a.m. Feb. 7, although he was not part of the chase himself. Corbett was traveling 58 mph in a 40 mph zone when he collided with Douglas' vehicle in the intersection of 4700 South and Redwood Road, killing Douglas.
Douglas was text messaging at the time of the accident and possibly under the influence of the powerful painkiller Tramadol, according to court documents filed by the defense.
"Douglas' autopsy shows that he had been ingesting Tramadol, a narcotic analgesic which operates in a manner similar to Morphine and is approximately equal in strength to Codine," court records state. "Tramadol normally decreases a person's reaction time, cognition, concentration and general awareness."
Defense attorney Ed Brass said there also is evidence that Douglas was texting a co-worker from the time he left work up until the time of the accident.
Prosecutors, however, argued that all of that is irrelevant. To the state, the case is green and red. As long as Douglas had the green light, as prosecutors claim he had, then he had the right of way.
"Then it doesn't matter if Tramadol is in his system or if he's text messaging. ... (Douglas) is supposed to be (in the intersection)," said Salt Lake Deputy District Attorney Christopher Bown. "It doesn't matter what John Douglas had in his blood. ... It wasn't John Douglas that caused the accident, it's running the red light. It's not impairment that caused the accident, it's running the red light. What John Douglas was doing that day is irrelevant unless it's determined to be an intervening cause.
"It doesn't matter if he's impaired if he has the green light. ... That's not what caused the accident."
Bown argued that including the texting and Tramadol evidence would prejudice a jury with irrelevant factors and may confuse them into thinking Douglas was partly responsible for the accident. Furthermore, he said it would be impossible to prove Douglas was actually impaired by the Tramadol. Bown also argued that Douglas' last text message was sent a full minute before the accident and was not a factor.
Brass said the person who received the text got it at 12:42 a.m., the exact time of the crash.
"It's not just about red lights and green lights," Brass countered.
Brass said it's a constitutional right for the defense to present their theory of what happened and let a jury decide whether the texting and Tramadol were relevant to the crash.
"The jury is entitled to know exactly why the failure to yield occurred in this case," Brass said.
Adkins also seemed puzzled by the prosecution's arguments. He questioned prosecutors whether motorists still had an obligation to yield to emergency vehicles even if they have a green light? And if they don't yield, why not? If the motorist didn't see an oncoming police car with lights and sirens, couldn't distracted or impaired driving be a factor?
Adkins ruled the evidence was relevant, and it will be up to a jury to determine what weight it deserves.
The defense already won a significant victory during the last court hearing when Adkins ruled the Taylorsville Police Department's own chase policy could not be admitted as evidence.After Adkins made his ruling, a motion was made and granted for the previously scheduled three-day jury trial to be canceled, and a status hearing was scheduled instead for Oct. 23.