Defense says man charged in connection with fatal Fourth of July accident wasn't the driver
Opening statements were held Tuesday in Becker County District Court in the trial of a man accused of killing four people and seriously injuring two others in a van crash July 4 near Pine Point.
Chad Eric Stewart, 26, of 810 East Central St. No. 10, Detroit Lakes was allegedly the driver of the white 1995 Chevy Lumina van, which left the roadway and struck a field approach around 2:40 a.m. on July 4, about 30 miles northeast of Detroit Lakes.
Four people died in the crash: Gregory Norcross, 45, Kayla Norcross, 24, Charlene Norcross, 22, and Scott Adams, 28, all of Ponsford.
Injured were Donna Peake, 22, and Amber Goodman, 23, both of Ponsford.
The prosecution, led by Assistant Becker County Attorney Tammy Merkins, and the defense team of Andrew Berger and Nancy Bowman, both agreed that everyone in the van had been drinking that night, and that it was a horrific accident.
The van was traveling at a minimum speed of 55-62 mph when it missed a curve on County Road 37 near Ponsford, went off the road, and the driver tried to steer it back onto the road before hitting a field approach.
The van flew 88 feet in the air, landed, continued forward and rolled -- a total distance of 413 feet from the point it left the roadway.
Bodies and badly injured people were found 40-50 feet in different directions from where the van came to rest.
But just who was driving the van at the time of the accident is a matter of dispute. The prosecution says it was Stewart.
Stewart says he started out driving that night, but about an hour later handed the wheel over to Scott Adams, who was responsible for the crash.
In her opening statement, Merkins told the jury that the state would prove through witnesses and forensic evidence that Stewart was the driver.
Merkins said a number of people saw Stewart driving that day; Peake told investigators that Stewart was driving at the time of the crash; and forensic evidence from a deployed steering wheel air bag will show DNA evidence of Stewart and Amber Goodman.
DNA swabs from an impact site on the windshield matched Stewart, Greg Norcross, and possibly another person.
An expert will testify that Stewart's blood alcohol level would have been .28 percent at the time of the crash, Merkins said.
And Merkins said the key defense witness, Amber Goodman -- Stewart's girlfriend -- kept changing her story.
"Amber first says she couldn't remember who was driving. Later she said she did remember, but the cops wouldn't let her talk about it. So (sheriff's investigator) John Sieling goes out there and she wouldn't talk to him. Three months later, she tells a defense investigator that Chad Stewart started out driving, but Scott Adams ended up driving," Merkins said.
For its part, the defense says Goodman is a more reliable witness than Peake.
Berger told the jury in his opening statement that Peake, who was paralyzed as a result of the crash, has memory problems. She does not remember several stops the van made that night, or that Scott Adams was even in the van at all, he said.
Goodman also has memory problems, Berger said, but she remembers switching drivers, and her version of events is better supported by the physical and forensic evidence that will be presented, he added.
The defense will also explain actions by Stewart taken after the crash that make him look guilty, Berger said.
Shortly after the accident, Stewart was walking along the road when a vehicle went by him, driven by a young man named Cayle Halberg, who was passing through the area.
Halberg saw the crash scene, went back and picked up Stewart, who asked him to tell police that the two had been riding together that night.
Stewart had abrasions on his legs and blood on his neck and clothing, but he told the deputy he had not been in the accident and had been riding with Halberg.
"The deputy jumped to the conclusion that Chad must not only have been in the accident, but must have been driving, because of the denial," Berger said. "The state believes there's only one reason Mr. Stewart would tell everyone that he was not in the accident, but there is an explanation," Berger told the jury.
At that point, Merkins successfully objected and Berger had to change tack and did not provide the explanation. It was one of two apparently successful objections Merkins made during Berger's opening statement.
District Judge Peter Irvine is presiding over the trial, which started with jury selection on Monday.
Stewart is charged with four serious felony counts of criminal vehicular operation, one felony count of criminal vehicular operation resulting in great bodily harm, and a serious felony count of criminal vehicular operation resulting in bodily harm -- driving with an alcohol concentration of .08 percent or more.
The trial continues today. It is expected to take one to two weeks.