- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A Callaway man went on trial Tuesday, choosing to let a judge decide his fate on charges of vehicular manslaughter from a crash last summer that killed two women.
A prosecutor and defense lawyer presented their opening arguments in a St. Mary’s courtroom to the visiting Prince George’s judge, who last week heard them debate evidence about Robert William Rice Jr.’s condition at the time of the fatal collision, the last in a rapid succession of motor vehicle wrecks on the evening of Aug. 4, 2011, on Route 5 in Callaway.
In addition to the manslaughter charges, St. Mary’s County grand jurors charged Rice, now 35, with failing to stop when the pickup truck he was driving initially collided with a minivan near the highway’s intersection with Piney Point Road.
Police reported that the northbound truck then rear-ended another vehicle before crossing the highway’s centerline and striking an oncoming Chevrolet Impala, killing 22-year-old Chernica Arielle “Ce-Ce” Boyland of Lexington Park and her passenger, 22-year-old Lisa Annette Proctor Brooks of Leonardtown, a La Plata native.
On Tuesday morning, St. Mary’s Assistant State’s Attorney Laura Caspar told the trial judge that Rice’s conduct “changed several people’s lives forever,” beginning when the truck hit the van driven by 40-year-old Sophie Newbury of Leonardtown. Her daughter riding with her called 911, the prosecutor said, and emergency dispatchers advised Newbury to try to follow the truck to get its registration tag number, which she did until she found herself going 80 mph to try to keep up.
Another motorist saw the truck coming up behind him, the prosecutor said, and it passed him on the right at a speed of between 80 and 100 mph, before the rear-end collision and fatal crash occurred.
“The Impala was all but cut in half,” Caspar said. “Both women were instantly killed.”
Newbury was treated at a local hospital for her injuries, according to police, while Rice and the driver of the vehicle rear-ended at the scene of the fatal crash, 54-year-old Dyhalma Trudell of Leonardtown, both were flown to another hospital for treatment of their injuries.
Caspar said that Rice drove at twice the posted speed limit, and the indictment also charges him with driving aggressively by passing traffic on the right.
“He did all these things with gross and criminal negligence,” the prosecutor said.
James F. Farmer, Rice’s lawyer, countered that the prosecution had failed to take into account the effects that a diabetes ailment had on Rice’s driving, despite his efforts to do what he should to control the illness.
“This has been the most under-investigated and over-charged case in the history of St. Mary’s County,” Farmer said. “He followed the protocol he had been following almost his entire life. He followed the schedule he has been following for years.”
Rice had a full breakfast that day, worked out at a gym, drank a protein shake and visited both of his parents before going home to get ready to attend a softball game, the lawyer said, but Rice has no memory of what happened after that, until he was being flown to the hospital. “He didn’t remember anything at all until he was awakened in the Maryland State Police helicopter,” Farmer said. “He said, ‘Did a car run into my front room?’ He had no awareness of what had happened.”
Farmer said a witness would testify that Rice was hanging out of the truck’s window while driving, “totally unaware of what he was doing, like he was having a seizure.”
At a pretrial hearing last week, Farmer questioned the propriety of a second grand jury hearing in the case, held in late July four months after the indictment was issued, and whether the prosecution was trying “to use the color of government to threaten” potential witnesses in the case.
Mark McLean, a former state police trooper who is an emergency medical technician, testified last week that he already knew Rice had a diabetes condition, before McLean drove up on the scene of the fatal crash.
“I saw debris still flying in the air,” McLean said. “I saw the dust still settling.”
McLean said he found Rice next to the truck, and that a test showed that Rice had a low blood-sugar level. McLean also said that he was summoned to last month’s grand jury proceeding, but was excused after a conversation with the case’s prosecutor.
“I did indicate in my opinion it was a medical emergency,” McLean said. “She indicated that she might look at the avenue, that he was not taking care of his diabetes the way he should.”
Circuit Judge Maureen M. Lamasney noted that the prosecution had raised that possible issue at one of Rice’s bond hearings held after he was arrested on the indictment.
Donald DeGraves, a paramedic who also responded to the fatal crash, testified that he told grand jurors last month that different people with diabetes respond differently at certain blood-sugar levels.
The judge rejected Farmer’s efforts last week to call Caspar to the witness stand to testify, and the judge also denied a motion that the indictment be dismissed. Lamasney said that she would rule during the trial on whether the defense can introduce evidence that Rice previously had been cleared to drive by a state medical advisory board.
Rice’s condition to drive “can change from day to day,” the judge said. “I’m not trying to orchestrate this in advance.”
The judge also said that “nobody is qualified to say ‘road rage’” when testifying about Rice’s driving.
Caspar said at the pretrial hearing that she offered a plea deal calling for Rice to plead guilty to the two manslaughter charges, leaving both sides to argue to the judge what would be the proper sentence.
Farmer said, “We’re not going to accept any plea offer, unless it’s a ticket for jaywalking.”
The trial is scheduled to continue into Thursday.