- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2000

A cellular telephone and a car became deadly instruments in the hands of a midshipman who crashed into a New York couple traveling home during Thanksgiving weekend last year, a prosecutor said in court yesterday.

The trial is the first-ever U.S. criminal case of vehicular homicide involving a driver distracted by a cell phone, according to prosecutors.

Jason Jones, 19, a midshipman at the Naval Academy, has been charged with two counts of vehicular manslaughter and other traffic charges in the deaths of parents John and Carole Hall, who had parked along the Capital Beltway.

If convicted of the vehicular manslaughter charges, Midshipman Jones could face a maximum of 20 years in prison.

"In the blink of an eye … two orphans were created who had to watch their parents killed," Assistant State's Attorney Michael D. Herman told Prince George's County Circuit Judge Ronald D. Schiff.

Midshipman Jones might as well have fired a 2-ton bullet when he reached for his cellular phone and lost control of his speeding car, Mr. Herman said.

The prosecutor called it a "textbook example" of what can happen when motorists are preoccupied by their phones.

Throughout testimony yesterday, Mr. Herman refused to use the word "accident," insisting that an accident is something that can't be prevented.

He said Midshipman Jones facing a charge of driving with a suspended license traveled at speeds between 80 and 110 mph, recklessly crossed several lanes and showed "gross negligence."

But defense attorney Stephen Markey said, "This was a tragic accident… . It was in fact an accident."

He said Midshipman Jones was merely trying to get off at the nearby Route 210 exit and was traveling close to the posted speed limit of 55 mph. Mr. Markey spoke very little of the cell phone in his opening remarks and has yet to present his defense.

Midshipman Jones sat very still in his naval uniform during the first day in court. His non-jury trial will continue today with testimony from a University of Iowa researcher who studies driver distractions, like the use of cell phones.

According to testimony, the Hall family was heading back home to Long Island on Nov. 28, 1999, after spending the holiday with relatives in Virginia.

Mr. Hall pulled the family's Mazda Protege onto the right shoulder of the outer loop near Oxon Hill because his son could not wait to use a restroom. The boy, Michael, walked up into a wooded area off the highway.

Shortly before 8:30 a.m., motorist Tania Tunstall watched a Pontiac Grand Prix go "shooting past" her on the Beltway, swerve through several lanes and head toward the parked car.

"It just zoomed past me," she testified, noting that her car shook from the experience. "I knew that he was going to hit that car."

The Grand Prix, driven by Midshipman Jones, crashed into the rear of the Protege, crushing the vehicle. Mr. Hall, who sat in the driver's seat, and Mrs. Hall, who sat behind her husband, died at the scene. They were both 47 years old.

"It was chaotic," paramedic Jeffrey Schuler said in describing the rescue and resuscitation efforts.

Michael, now 11, was unharmed and a daughter, Sarah, now 17, suffered serious back injuries. She had been seated in a reclined front-passenger seat. The children are now back in New York living with their grandmother.

Midshipman Jones, who was heading from his girlfriend's home to his parents' house in Fort Washington, suffered no serious injuries. He apparently was trying to call his mother on the cell phone to let her know he was almost there.

Yesterday's proceedings occurred exactly one year after the couple's funeral.

During the summer, a Long Island lawmaker introduced a bill before the Suffolk legislature that would fine motorists up to $150 for taking their hands off of the steering wheel to use a cell phone. The issue was tabled.

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