EVERETT — A judge found a Snohomish County driver not guilty Thursday of being impaired by methamphetamine in a crash that killed two young cousins on I-5, even though his blood tested positive for the drug.
Todd Eugene Brown, 52, was driving a Ford F-250 pickup northbound near Lynnwood in February 2017 when he rear-ended a Nissan Quest with enough force to crush the van’s back half.
Amiyah Johnson, 12, and Yesterday Wallace, 2, were passengers in the back of the van. Amiyah, a sixth-grader at a Mukilteo middle school, died at the scene. Yesterday died hours later at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Two boys suffered broken bones.
Superior Court Judge Linda Krese heard from witnesses of the horror in a bench trial in June. She spoke for 20 minutes to a packed courtroom Thursday to explain why she found Brown not guilty of two counts of vehicular homicide and two counts of vehicular assault. In short, expert testimony convinced her it couldn’t be proven how methamphetamine had affected Brown.
“The difficulty here is not that the state failed to present available evidence,” Krese said. “But the state of science with regard to the effects of methamphetamine is not such that clear conclusions can be drawn as to the effect of the drug on individual actions at particular times, particularly with regard to driving, without more evidence than is available in this case.”
The mere presence of the drug in the blood, Krese said, was not sufficient to draw a conclusion.
The gallery remained silent until the judge finished. Then the family of Amiyah and Yesterday burst into tears.
“You’re a killer, a killer,” said the girls’ grandmother, Linda Snyder. “No, it’s not over. It’ll never be over.”
Outside, she wept in a courtroom hallway, along with others who have been grieving for the girls the past 1½ years.
“We might as well put a sign out on the road that says, ‘OK to drive on meth and kill people,’” Snyder said.
Traffic had been slowing down and speeding up again that drizzly winter afternoon on I-5 near 164th Street SW in Lynnwood. There were no skid marks on the road before impact, suggesting Brown did not brake, according to the Washington State Patrol. Accidents happen every day on I-5, deputy prosecutor Tobin Darrow said in his closing argument. But in most crashes, drivers will hit the brake pedal, almost as a reflex.
“They don’t just drive through the vehicle ahead of them, as if it wasn’t there,” Darrow said. “So something’s really going on the defendant’s head that is not normal.”
Attorneys agreed Brown did not show overt signs of being on drugs. He looked tired, but wasn’t nodding off or slurring his speech, according to state troopers who saw him. His attorney, Caroline Mann, argued troopers should have seen clear signs.
“The state has drawn a lot of conclusions from very little evidence,” Mann said during her closing arguments in June. “What we do have is four trained, experienced state troopers who observed, spoke with and interacted with Todd Brown, and none of them noticed any sign of impairment.”
Darrow argued drugs like meth aren’t as obvious as alcohol. Alcohol has a smell, for example. Brown passed field sobriety tests, but a trooper noted his bloodshot eyes and other clues that could suggest impairment. The legal standard, Darrow said, is not that a driver is grossly impaired — it’s that he or she is impaired at all.
Brown reluctantly agreed to a voluntary blood draw, to prove his innocence. A state lab tested his blood at 1.0 milligrams of meth per liter, about five times the amount that is considered abuse by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Darrow argued Brown was coming down from a high when the crash happened, which could explain why he looked tired and had decreased attentiveness to the road.
“Certainly by the time the collision occurred, the euphoria had worn off,” Darrow said. “He was in that opposite phase, that equal and opposite reaction that must occur in a drug user, the fatigue or crash phase. What goes artificially high must go artificially low.”
Krese rejected the argument. There wasn’t enough evidence, she said, to show he had reacted too slow, or that a faster reaction could have prevented the crash. He told troopers in a statement that another vehicle changed lanes in front of him, and he had no time to stop for the slow-moving van. He declined to testify at trial. The defense tried to have the case dismissed this year on the grounds that the state couldn’t prove how the drug affected Brown’s driving. A judge ruled the case could proceed to trial.
Krese said she did not intend to diminish the tragedy of the loss of two girls. But the burden or proof hadn’t been met, she said.
“The court is well aware there are many people very interested in this decision,” the judge said. “I’m sure there are many who have been profoundly impacted by this tragic accident, who hoped to hear something different today.”
The girls were born 10 years apart on the same day, Sept. 16. Their aunt, Amy Manus, said Amiyah was like a big sister to her little cousin. Yesterday was nicknamed “Thunderfoot,” for the way she made the house shake when she walked, her aunt said.
“I’m just in complete shock,” Manus said, through tears. “I can’t believe this man is about to walk out of this building, free, and my nieces are dead. This man was on drugs. They proved that he was on drugs. I don’t even understand how he’s going to walk out of this building, and never serve a day in jail.”
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.