- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2000

A judge cleared a Naval Academy midshipman of manslaughter charges yesterday for a crash that killed a New York couple on the Capital Beltway while he was talking on his cell phone.

Prince George's County Circuit Judge Ronald D. Schiff found Jason Jones, 20, not guilty on two counts of vehicular manslaughter, one count of driving with a suspended license and one count of failure to reduce speed to avoid collision.

The judge did convict the midshipman on one count of negligent driving and ordered him to pay a $500 fine.

"Driving while under the influence of a cell phone is not a crime," Judge Schiff said. "The court cannot find the defendant grossly negligent."

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

Midshipman Jones, wearing a dark naval uniform, showed little emotion when the verdict was read. Afterward, he hugged his mother and other family members, who declined to comment.

According to testimony, John and Carole Hall, both 47, were heading home to Long Island, N.Y., with their two children on Nov. 28, 1999, after spending the Thanksgiving weekend 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.

Midshipman Jones, driving a Pontiac Grand Prix, crashed into the rear of the Protege, crushing the vehicle. Mr. and Mrs. Hall died at the scene. Their son, Michael, now 11, was not hurt. However, his sister, Sarah, now 16, suffered back injuries.

The midshipman suffered no serious injuries.

Relatives of the Halls would not comment yesterday.

Jack Johnson, state's attorney for Prince George's County, said the state put on a very strong case.

"You have to look at it in combination speed and intention," he said. "The combination of the two equals recklessness."

The prosecutor, Assistant State's Attorney Michael D. Herman, said it was his job to prove Midshipman Jones was "grossly negligent."

He had argued that Midshipman Jones may have been driving at a speed of more than 100 mph, and acted "grossly negligent" when he reached over to pick up his cell phone with his right hand while keeping his left hand on the wheel, drifting several lanes and striking the Halls' parked car.

During his closing argument, Mr. Herman reminded the judge of a witness's testimony that the young man's car drove past hers so fast that it shook her car.

Defense attorney Stephen Markey had said throughout the trial that Midshipman Jones was traveling close to the posted speed limit of 55 mph and was merely trying to get off at the nearby Route 210 exit.

Mr. Markey said the definition of "grossly negligent" is a "wanton or reckless disregard for human life."

It is the obligation of the state to prove that Midshipman Jones showed such callousness beyond a reasonable doubt, Mr. Markey reminded the judge.

"Do we have reasonable doubt in this case?" he asked. "We most certainly do."

Earlier in the day, each side used accident-reconstruction experts to dispute how fast Midshipman Jones was traveling. The witnesses testified about rating efficiencies, drag factors and the coefficient of friction.

Judge Schiff said he believed the defendant was driving no faster than 80 mph.

He said he couldn't conclude that the single act of speeding even at 50 mph is grossly negligent, nor could he find dialing a cell phone so callous that it would fit the definition.

Judge Schiff, who admitted even he uses his cell phone while driving, said the effect of cell-phone use on drivers "should be subject to extended research."

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