Mariah Dawn Wyatt didn’t testify in her own defense. Crossville attorney Jeff Vires didn’t call a witness but opted to attack what he described as sloppy reports and handling of evidence as enough to give a Cumberland County jury reasonable doubt.
The jury didn’t agree and took only 20 minutes to convict his client.
Wyatt, 20, was on trial Wednesday and Thursday for vehicle assault in connection with the Sept. 6, 2015, crash on what is known locally as Hwy. 127 N’s Rinnie stretch. The crash left Bruce Threet of the Jamestown area and the father of four near death and suffering from life-long effects of injuries sustained in the crash.
Evidence showed that Wyatt’s blood alcohol content (BAC) about four hours after the crash was .106, above the .08 level Tennessee law sets at being too intoxicated to drive.
A retired Tennessee Bureau of Investigation expert, however, conducted a controversial retrograde extrapolation using several factors including Wyatt’s weight, the time that had passed, time of the crash and time of the BAC test to determine within a certain margin of error the level of intoxication at the time of the crash.
TBI forensic scientist John W. Harrison testified that his “conservative” extrapolation would put Wyatt’s blood content between .136 and .166 at the time of the crash, double or just under double the legal limit.
Threet, a former welder at the Watt’s Bar nuclear plant near Spring City, was the first to testify and told the jury the Sunday morning started out as most work days, with him rising around 2:30 a.m. His normal routine was to arrive at the nuclear plant before 6 a.m. EST to begin his ten-hour shift.
That all changed when he hit the north end of the Rinnie stretch, a flat and one of the few straight sections of Hwy. 127 N. “My whole life changed that morning,” Threet told the jury.
As he passed The Store he spotted headlights traveling toward him but soon noticed the headlights were from a vehicle that had crossed left of the center line into his lane of travel. Near the Rinnie fire hall, he realized the vehicle “just kept coming over.”
Threet said he pulled as much onto the shoulder as he could and was still struck by the Ford F140 pickup driven by Wyatt.
Threet’s Honda CRV struck a culvert and flipped upside down. Despite massive damage to his right side, Threet was able to pull himself out of the car. “My whole right side was all on fire,” the victim said describing his pain.
When Assistant District Attorney Philip Hatch asked him what he did next, Threet responded, “The first thing I done was I talked to God.” He added, “I felt like I was going to die.”
Threet was rushed by ambulance to Cumberland Medical Center where his heart was shocked to regulate rhythm, Threet said.
CMC emergency room physician Dr. James Wojcik testified that when Threet arrived at the hospital he was suffering from extensive injuries on “almost his entire body.” This included an extensive pelvis fracture. The decision to transfer Threet to a level 1 trauma center was quickly made. He considered Threet’s injuries life-threatening.
Threet was placed on a helicopter bound for The University of Tennessee Medical Center. He woke the next day. What followed were surgeries including a hip replacement, rehab, life in a wheelchair and eventually being able to walk short distances on level ground with the aid of a cane.
Under questioning from Vires, Threet testified that he was not drinking that morning and admitted he was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the crash. When asked about a civil lawsuit, Threet said he is facing or has been given notice of lawsuits relating to his medical bills because he has been unable to work since the crash.
“I owe a lot of people money,” Threet said. He has filed a civil lawsuit against Wyatt.
Cumberland County Sheriff’s Deputy Cpl. Sean Mullikin testified that he responded to the scene and was the first officer to arrive. He observed the overturned Honda CRV with Threet lying beside it and a red Ford pickup about “two football fields” north of the crash, stopped in the north lane.
He determined Wyatt was the driver of the pickup and said when he approached, she was crying and talking on the phone. He also detected an odor of alcohol coming from her and testified Wyatt was confused about where she was, at one point motioning to a nearby driveway and calling it Potato Farm Rd.
Later Mullikin transported Wyatt to the county jail at the request of Trooper Al Seitner. She refused to submit to a breathalyzer test and later Seitner obtained a search warrant to force a drawing of blood for testing.
Seitner testified that he, too, detected alcohol coming from Wyatt and administered a field sobriety test which was recorded on the trooper’s dash camera. During the test, Wyatt alternately audibly cried during some moments and responded to questions from the trooper during other moments.
He attempted to administer a field breath test but Wyatt either would not or could not complete the test and at that point the trooper decided to take her to the jail for a BAC test.
Seitner also testified there were errors in his report that resulted in some fields being checked without benefit of a review of his dash camera which he said is his practice. Seitner works the night shift for THP and some nights is the lone trooper on duty for 15 counties, he testified.
Vires scored the misinformation and lack of accurate information during his cross examination of Seitner, but the trooper testified, “That doesn’t change my conclusion.”
Vires criticized the handling of two unmarked vials of blood that were identified as Wyatt’s blood and were tested at the TBI lab in Nashville.
Hatch countered this by establishing through Seitner that the unmarked vials were placed in a sealed envelop in his presence and were given to Trooper Nick Neal who transferred the blood to Cookeville. Trooper Kenny Ragland testified he took the blood to the TBI crime lab in Nashville where it was received by TBI forensic technician Trudy McGowan, still sealed, and eventually ended up in the hands of Harrison.
Harrison, a forensic toxicologist/scientist who has studied alcohol and human performance, conducted the retro-grade extrapolation which was presented to the jury over Vires’ objections.
Under questioning from Vires’, Harrison testified that Wyatt’s claim to police she had only drunk “two or three beers” was not supported by the calculations and the BAC test.
In his closing, Vires told the jury that the video of the field sobriety test was “at odds with the calculations. There is something wrong and I do not know what it is, but something is not right.”
He also criticized Seitner’s errors on the crash report and mistakes in math that were made by an accident reconstructionist who went to the scene a couple days later.
“It was a sloppy, halfway investigation,” Vires concluded to the jury.
Hatch countered with a simple charge to the jury to look at the BAC which was “well above the legal limit” and to use that to bring back a guilty verdict.
Criminal Court Judge accepted the jury’s verdict and set sentencing for 9 a.m. on April 28. At the request of Hatch, Wyatt’s bond was revoked and she was taken into custody and was required to make a new bond of $55,000. He also agreed with the prosecutor that an alcohol monitoring device be installed.
State law requires Wyatt’s license to be suspended for one year as a result of the conviction.