Man charged in train crash that killed fiancee sobs at trial
A man accused of being "high as a kite" when he drove onto railroad tracks in York Haven, causing a crash that killed his fiancee and badly injured their toddler, broke down sobbing in the first hour of his trial Monday afternoon.
"I can't do it," Akim Jones-Williams told his defense attorney, Shawn Dorward, leading the attorney to request and receive a short break.
As Dorward and prosecutors spoke privately at the bench with presiding Common Pleas Judge Michael E. Bortner, one of Jones-Williams' supporters approached the defendant and comforted the sobbing man in open court.
"I know this is particularly hard for you," she said. "But you have to pull yourself together."
Jones-Williams, 28, formerly of Mechanicsburg and now of Laurel Springs, New Jersey, is free on $25,000 bail, charged with homicide by vehicle while DUI, homicide by vehicle, child endangerment, reckless endangerment, DUI and careless driving.
Newberry Township Police allege Jones-Williams was high on marijuana July 5, 2014, when the crash happened about 4:45 p.m. at Cly Road in an area known as Slonneker's Landing, as the family was heading to the Susquehanna River.
Mom killed, tot hurt: Killed in the crash was 23-year-old Cori E. Sisti. The couple's then-2½-year-old daughter, Serena Jones, was badly injured and flown by medical helicopter to Hershey Medical Center, according to senior deputy prosecutor Sarah Buhite.
Jones-Williams also was injured and flown to a local hospital, police said at the time.
During her opening statement Monday afternoon, Buhite told jurors that the train's warning horn, bells and lights all were activated, and that conductor Virgil Weaver could see Sisti in the passenger seat, waving her arms at Jones-Williams to move.
"Ladies and gentlemen, you'll hear testimony that car did nothing," she said, and that Jones-Williams was driving extremely slowly.
But Dorward urged jurors to keep an open mind. He said his client, Sisti and their daughter were on their way to the river to meet up with Sisti's family.
'Perfect storm': Dorward argued trees would have partially blocked his client's sight line, and said vehicles that couldn't find a space in a nearby parking lot had parked next to the railroad tracks that day, further reducing visibility.
He called it a "perfect storm" and made sure jurors knew the railroad crossing has no bars that automatically drop when trains approach.
Dorward said that while prosecution witnesses are expected to testify that they smelled marijuana in the SUV after the crash, there was no way for them to tell when it was smoked or how much was smoked.
"He was not impaired," Dorward said of Jones-Williams. Court documents indicate a blood test found marijuana metabolite in the defendant's system.
Saw SUV's passenger: The first witness to testify Monday was Weaver, the Norfolk Southern train conductor.
He told jurors he was heading westbound from Lancaster to Enola when he got to "second Cly Road," meaning the second time in York Haven that Cly Road crosses the railroad tracks.
Weaver said he first spotted the Mitsubishi Outlander SUV on the tracks about 350 feet ahead of him and testified the train's headlights, horn, bell and ditch lights all were activated.
"The closer I got to the vehicle, the speed of the vehicle remained the same," he told jurors, estimating that was 1 mph to 2 mph.
When Weaver realized the vehicle wasn't going to get off the tracks in time, the train was put into emergency mode, police have said.
Weaver testified he saw Sisti flailing her arms to get the driver to move faster and said she kept up the arm movements right up until the train crashed into the passenger side of the SUV. He said the train was going 40 mph when Weaver saw the SUV.
Police have said the train's "pilot," more commonly called a cowcatcher, scooped up the SUV and threw it 75 feet into a wooded area, where it landed on its passenger side.
Smelled pot: Weaver said after the crash, he went over to the SUV and smelled burned marijuana coming from inside.
During that portion of Weaver's testimony, chief deputy prosecutor Tim Barker showed jurors photos of the mangled SUV projected onto a courtroom screen. It was those photos that appear to have caused Jones-Williams to break down.
During her opening statement, Buhite told jurors they would hear from a witness who maintains that Jones-Williams claimed he was "high as a kite" while driving that day.
Court documents allege that he had numerous conversations about the crash with a woman named Denise Gibson.
"I drove up there ... (for) 18 miles, high as a kite, and nothing happened, so it's not my fault that the train hit our car," documents allege Jones-Williams told Gibson.
Trial is expected to continue Tuesday morning.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.