A jury hearing a criminal case will not take a trip to view an intersection where the defendant’s Jeep struck a mother wheeling her child in a stroller last August. The child died and the mother suffered injuries, leading to the driver’s prosecution for involuntary manslaughter.
Under Virginia Code § 19.2-264.1, a jury in a criminal case may, at the request of either side, be taken to view the place at issue in the matter, when the court decides such a view “is necessary to a just decision.”
Loudoun County prosecutors asked the circuit court to permit the jury to view the intersection of Riverside Parkway and Coton Manor Drive where defendant John Miller IV’s 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee struck Mindy Schulz in the crosswalk while pushing her five-month-old son Tristan.
At the hearing on the commonwealth’s motion, a deputy sheriff with 15 years’ experience as a crash investigator presented six color photographs of the intersection taken on the day of the accident. The court received a computer-aided overhead view diagram of the intersection, showing distance measurements from various points.
The deputy also recounted his recent visit to the intersection and detailed changes in the area since the date of the accident, according to the court’s July 19 opinion in Commonwealth v. Miller (VLW 017-8-070).
Blue ribbons surround one traffic sign and a memorial sign had been placed at the northwest corner of the intersection. A flower bed at that corner now has “decorative stones,” and there are additional pedestrian warning signs on Riverside Parkway. A traffic pole now has black electrical tape and the timing sequence between the pedestrian signal and the traffic signal has changed.
According to the deputy, eight eyewitnesses were at “various positions” near the intersection, both in and out of vehicles, when the collision occurred,.
The defendant objected to the jury view request, citing the substantial changes to the intersection since the accident occurred.
The court’s decision turned on whether a jury view would “be of substantial aid to the jury in reaching a correct verdict,” said Loudoun Circuit Judge Douglas L. Fleming Jr.
A jury view is not always practically “necessary” to a just decision, and can be inconvenient and costly, cause delay and even be impractical, Fleming said.
The judge identified some of the factors to consider in exercising the court’s discretion to allow a view, including the availability of photos or other representations of the crime scene, witness testimony, and the practicality and logistics of the view and whether it would enhance the jury’s understanding of the evidence at trial.
A court also has to consider whether the crime scene as viewed by the jury would be in the same condition as when the accident occurred.
Although the commonwealth said steps could be taken to make the scene similar to its earlier condition – covering warning and memorial signs and shutting off traffic lights and pedestrian signals – such modifications “likely would be unduly distracting or misleading to a jury,” Fleming said.
And variances in the day of the year and time of day, as well as weather differences, meant the jury would not see the scene under the same conditions that existed at the time of the accident, the court concluded.
Finally, the commonwealth did not show the intersection at issue was so unique as to be beyond jurors’ range of common experience, the court said.
“Jurors, particularly in this geographic area, are typically drivers who have driven through and made turns at innumerable intersections and who have experienced looking through the windows and windshields of their vehicles in making such turns,” Fleming wrote.