Friday, January 6, 2012

Rough Justice

From the Inlander:

Fred Rice is an authoritative man, particularly when it comes to explaining car crashes. The Idaho State Police officer’s eight-page résumé spells out his expertise. Thirty years in law enforcement. Experience investigating more than 800 wrecks, including 400 fatal ones. Twenty-six years as an expert witness in accident reconstruction.

Now, according to the Idaho Supreme Court, another line likely belongs on Rice’s résumé: perjury in a murder trial.

In 2006, Jonathan Ellington of Hayden, Idaho, stood accused of using his car to menace two young women and run over their mother, Vonette Larsen, while Larsen’s gun-wielding husband tried to stop him. The tragic case grew out of a wild road-rage incident and, in the end, underscores the power of expert witnesses in the courtroom.

Ellington, then 45, was a long-haul trucker and had been in trouble before, but not like this. He had been charged with driving under the influence twice and had received tickets for not wearing a seat belt, not having proof of insurance and speeding.

Ellington’s trial started on Aug. 23, 2006. The prosecutor called police officers, the medical examiner and Vonette Larsen’s family. Ellington’s lawyer called people who had encountered Ellington before the incident, as well as a firearms expert and an accident reconstructionist.
And then the prosecutor called Fred Rice. Over the objections of Ellington’s attorney, Rice took the stand to rebut the testimony of the defense’s accident investigator, who argued that Ellington didn’t intentionally strike Vonette Larsen. Rice countered that claim.

“I think that he was quite pivotal in the verdict,” says Anne Taylor, a Kootenai County deputy public defender. “Fred Rice had a definite presence in the courtroom. He’s a person who’s testified quite a bit before.”

The jury deliberated for a day and a half before finding Ellington guilty of aggravated assault and second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 25 years and would have to serve at least 12.

Ellington is still in jail, but no longer as a convicted murderer: In a ruling released at the end of May, the Idaho Supreme Court threw out his conviction and ordered that Ellington be given a new trial, which is scheduled to start on Monday, Aug. 29.

The state Supreme Court didn’t rule that the case was tainted by some legal technicality, but something much simpler: evidence that Rice lied on the stand.

The judges also found misconduct in the case by the Kootenai County prosecutor’s office, which has had several convictions tossed out in recent years because of similar issues.

“It is extremely disturbing to this Court that an officer of the law would present false testimony in any case, especially a murder case,” Justice Warren Jones says in the Supreme Court decision (pdf). “In this case, however, it is impossible to believe there was any truth to the testimony of Cpl. Rice.”

Full article can be found here.

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