CASPER, Wyo. — A Natrona County jury found the driver in a crash that killed a five-year-old boy guilty of homicide by vehicle on Wednesday. The misdemeanor charge (6-2-106) carries a penalty of up to one year in jail.
In closing arguments, state prosecutor Blaine Nelson referenced testimony by the passenger in the crash saying that the driver, Sierra Maelynn White, was engaged with her cellphone when she drove through the stop sign from Pathfinder Road onto Highway 220 and into the path of an oncoming semi on June 9, 2022.
Nelson argued that White’s distracted driving consciously “disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk,” constituting “recklessness” and an aggravated form of the charge that carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
White was found not guilty of the aggravated charge.
Lt. PJ Cross with the Wyoming Highway Patrol testified to the numerous environmental indicators that should have alerted White to the oncoming intersection: a sign alerting to the stop sign ahead, a cattle guard, the distinctly fresh blacktop on Highway 220, clear weather and the stop sign itself.
Lt. Cross estimated that White’s Honda Pilot was going about 47 mph when the semi collided with it and stated that there was no evidence of braking. Video footage from the dash of the semi showing the moment of impact was played at trial.
W.S. 6-1-104 (ix) “Recklessly” is defined as the following conduct: A person acts recklessly when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the harm he is accused of causing will occur, and the harm results. The risk shall be of such nature and degree that disregarding it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation; Wyoming Statute defining the element necessary to support a an aggravated vehicular homicide charge
Public defender Steve Mink said during closing arguments that though White clearly caused the crash, she had not perceived the risk and so could not be guilty of disregarding it.
“People make mistakes, accidents happen,” Mink said. “Not every accident that results in a fatality is a crime,” Mink said.
Nelson recounted elements of the passenger’s testimony about the time of the crash: that she verbally alerted White to the stop sign and the oncoming semi-rig. The passenger “said [White] was on her phone. She repeatedly described this [‘flipping through the phone’] gesture.”
Mink argued that forensic examination revealed no recorded proof of outgoing messages or active engagement leading up to the crash other than the activity of the Spotify music streaming service, which is commonly used while driving in a passive and benign manner.
Mink also highlighted details in the passenger’s trial testimony that weren’t offered to investigators in a taped interview a week after the crash. Lt. Cross spent the evening recess reviewing the 90-minute tape, ultimately testifying that the taped interview included mention by the passenger that White was holding her phone.
Mink said this limited evidence equally undermined the element of “gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise” necessary to support the misdemeanor charge.
W.S. 6-1-104 (iii) “Criminal negligence” is defined as the following conduct: A person acts with criminal negligence when, through a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise, he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the harm he is accused of causing will occur, and the harm results. The risk shall be of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation; Wyoming Statute defining the element necessary to support a misdemeanor vehicular homicide charge
“I still don’t believe she’s guilty of this,” Mink said.
White remains out of custody on bond, with orders now to comply with presentence investigators.
Carrol Jane Capshaw, known in Casper as Pastor Butch Capshaw of the Good News Church, is the grandfather of the 5-year-old who died in the crash. He spoke to Oil City News at the time and again while the jury broke to deliberate Wednesday afternoon.
He said White had long been close with his family and the mother of the child.
“It’s in Gods hands now,” he said. “I hope He makes them both strong.