Judge says trial about crash that killed 2 kids can proceed

Still to be resolved: Whether defendant Todd Eugene Brown’s methamphetamine use was a factor.

Amiyah Johnson (left) and Yesterday Wallace. (Family photo)

Amiyah Johnson (left) and Yesterday Wallace. (Family photo)

EVERETT — A Snohomish County judge on Friday cleared the way for a Lake Stevens man’s criminal trial for the deaths of two girls in what prosecutors say was a methamphetamine-fueled crash along I-5.

The ruling by Superior Court Judge George Appel came one day shy of the one-year mark since Todd Eugene Brown crashed his employer’s Ford F-250 into a minivan along the freeway’s northbound lanes near Lynnwood.

The truck became embedded inside the van’s passenger compartment, which contained two adults and four children, all relatives. Amiyah Johnson, 12, a sixth-grader at Olympic View Middle School, and her cousin, Yesterday Wallace, 2, both were killed. Two boys, ages 5 and 7, were hospitalized with numerous broken bones.

Prosecutors say there was no indication Brown attempted to brake. A blood test later found methamphetamine in his system.

Brown is scheduled for an April trial on two counts each of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault. His attorney, longtime public defender Caroline Mann, last month urged Appel to dismiss the case.

She argued prosecutors will not be able to prove her client’s driving was affected by the drug at the time of the crash. Unlike alcohol, there is limited data to demonstrate how methamphetamine affects different people.

Moreover, her client was not arrested after troopers conducted sobriety tests at the scene.

In the absence of other evidence, the situation would invite jurors to speculate that the accident was a result of meth use, Mann argued.

Appel said the case presented an unusual situation, in part because an expert in spotting impairment in drivers did not take Brown into custody.

At the earlier hearing, deputy prosecutor Tobin Darrow countered that troopers had noted some symptoms of impairment. Those included bloodshot eyes, eyelid tremors, balance issues and diminished ability to gauge the passage of time.

That’s one reason Brown was asked to submit to a voluntary blood test — to clear up any questions, the judge was told.

Under the law, prosecutors only need to demonstrate Brown’s ability to drive was “lessened in any appreciable degree” by meth to support the charges.

Appel said that before reaching his decision he pored over more than 1,100 pages of police reports about the crash. Faced with a motion to dismiss, he needed to consider all the potential evidence, he said.

Witnesses gave statements about Brown driving close to the van’s bumper, as if impatient, and then accelerating to make a lane change as if to go around, Appel noted. Likewise, the van’s driver appears to have tried to get out of the truck’s way, also by changing lanes, but apparently picked the one Brown hopped into.

Prosecutors also plan to call a state toxicologist to testify about the meth found in Brown’s blood. The toxicologist is expected to describe the results of a study of more than 100 cases involving drivers who had been using meth.

The study found drivers with meth levels similar to that reportedly found in Brown had problems with speeding, impatience, erratic driving and accidents, the judge noted.

While making it clear that he wasn’t commenting on the strength of the potential evidence, Appel said jurors could reach a decision after weighing the available information, such as how Brown allegedly was driving, the test results and the toxicologist’s expected testimony.

“This takes it out of the realm of speculation,” he said.

The judge’s decision was greeted by applause and sighs of relief by the family and friends of the dead and injured children.

Appel would have none of that.

“Silence! Silence!” he said. “This is a court of law.”

Brown remains free on bail. The hearing was delayed Friday after the defendant reportedly was punched by a relative of the victims.

The incident occurred near the courthouse lobby elevators. An Everett man, 47, allegedly approached Brown and punched him with sufficient force to break a partial denture, according to police reports.

The incident happened in front of courthouse marshals, who immediately arrested the Everett man. They booked him into jail for investigation of third-degree assault because the situation unfolded outside a courtroom. It can be a felony to assault somebody under those circumstances.

Scott North: 425-339-3431; north@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snorthnews.

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