John Edward Epps was driving recklessly and was "grossly negligent" when he caused a crash that killed a 4-year-old Amish girl and the driver of the minivan she was riding in, according to prosecutors. The girl's parents were seriously injured in the Dec. 23, 2009, crash.
But according to Epps' defense attorney it was an accident, not a crime.
Chief deputy prosecutor Tim Barker and State College-based defense attorney Philip Masorti presented their opening statements to jurors Monday afternoon at the start of trial.
Epps, 42, of Southern Cross Drive in Gwynn Oak, Md., remains free on bail, charged with two counts of homicide by vehicle, four counts of reckless endangerment and one count each of speeding, careless driving and overtaking a vehicle.
The family of little Katie Fisher packed the prosecution side of Courtroom No. 3 Monday afternoon for the start of the trial.
Katie's parents, Steven and Mattie Fisher of Lower Chanceford Township, survived their critical injuries. Epps suffered minor injuries, police have said.
What happened: Brian Richardson, 38, of Airville, was taking the Fishers to see friends when the minivan he was driving was rear-ended by Epps' ADT work van, according to Barker.
"They were going to sing," he said. "They were going to be with friends. ... But something happened on the way."
Richardson had stopped his minivan on Route 74 in Lower Chanceford Township, waiting to make a left turn onto Slab Road when the crash happened about 5:30 p.m., Barker said.
Barker said the event data recorder in Epps' work truck revealed he was driving about 63 mph when the crash happened -- and also revealed he didn't brake before impact. An event data recorder works the way black boxes do in airplanes, recording what has happened in the moments before a crash.
Different accounts? Barker told jurors Epps gave several different accounts of the crash to state police, including that he was going 40 or 45 mph, that he braked but skidded, and that he tried to drive around the minivan on the shoulder of the rural highway.
Epps eventually acknowledged to investigators he didn't initially tell them everything, according to the prosecutor.
"His justification is, 'I was scared,'" Barker told the jury. "It's grossly negligent. It's reckless."
But Masorti, in his opening statement, said his experts will show Epps had only six seconds to react after cresting a hill and seeing the minivan.
"The closure rate is so fast humans don't have time to react,' he said.
'Extreme terror': Masorti also told jurors there's no evidence Richardson had his turn signal on or that his brake lights were working, even though Steven Fisher previously testified the turn signal was on.
"He's experiencing ... extreme terror," Masorti said of Epps. "He tried to make an evasive maneuver to the right. ... He's not Dale Earnhardt."
Masorti also accused state police of "twisting" his client's words.
He repeatedly told jurors Epps is a law-abiding man -- a church deacon who was listening to an audio version of the Book of Matthew when the crash happened.
But when Masorti went on to point out Epps' wife and children sitting in the courtroom, Barker objected.
"This is pandering," Barker complained. Presiding Common Pleas Judge John S. Kennedy instructed Masorti to move on.
-- Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at 505-5429, email@example.com or on Twitter @ydcrimetime.