KELSO, Wash. – The prosecution in Fred Russell’s vehicular homicide trial detailed a horrifying crash scene Friday, describing a roadway littered with flaming vehicles, dead college students and live victims trapped in the wreckage.
The cause of that scene, according to prosecutors: Russell and the choices he made that night about how much he drank and how he drove.
“The defendant’s reckless actions go back much further than just a few seconds before the accident,” Assistant Attorney General Melanie Tratnik told the jury in opening arguments Friday.
Russell, 28, is charged with three counts of vehicular homicide and three of vehicular assault from the June 2001 crash that killed three WSU students and severely injured three others.
His defense team agreed that the four-vehicle wreck was tragic. But it was an accident, not a crime, attorney Francisco Duarte told jurors. He suggested that the entire investigation has been a witch hunt that started that night, when in the minds of much of the Palouse region, Russell “became public enemy No. 1.”
Spreading out toy cars on a large drawing of a road, Duarte suggested that there are serious inconsistencies in the testimony of Robert Hart, who was driving a Subaru that Russell came up behind on state Route 270 that night.
Prosecutors say Russell was far too drunk to drive and was traveling at an estimated 90 mph in his Chevy Blazer when he tried to pass in a no-passing zone, triggering the chain-reaction wreck. Police say the first impact – between his Blazer and the driver-side door of an oncoming 1978 Cadillac crammed with seven fellow students – took place in the oncoming lane.
The defense, however, appears to be suggesting that Russell had to veer into that lane, perhaps to avoid Hart’s Subaru. Yes, Russell’s Blazer was in the oncoming lane, Duarte conceded.
“But what science does not answer … is how did this car ultimately get here,” he said, indicating the first impact spot. And Russell – whom Duarte refers to as “FDR” in the courtroom – was not to blame, the attorney said.
“That’s what I’m going to tell you at the end of this trial: that he’s not responsible for this accident,” Duarte told jurors.
Rich Morrow, of West Seattle, whose 21-year-old daughter Stacy was one of the three students killed in the crash, called the defense position “poppycock.”
“If he wasn’t the cause of this crash, who was?” Morrow said. “Was there some mystery driver? Some alien?” Hart’s testimony estimating Russell’s speed at 90 mph, he said, “makes any story about having to avoid a collision almost laughable. It’s still Fred’s responsibility for coming up on him so fast.”
In addition to Morrow, the two dozen people in the courtroom Friday included at least a half dozen other family members of those involved in the crash, including relatives of Ryan Sorensen, 21, and Brandon Clements, 22, both of whom were killed, and the only Cadillac passenger who was able to walk away: Eric Haynes. Haynes and fellow students Sameer Ranade and Kara Eichelsdoerfer – both of whom were severely injured – are expected to testify.
The first witnesses in the case: Brad and Kami Raymond, a married couple who in 2001 lived in Colfax. After a movie and picking up groceries in Moscow, they headed home in their pickup.
Rounding a curve, they came upon three men and several wrecked cars, one of which was starting to burn. Horns in the wrecked cars were still going off, only to cut out as the flames destroyed them. Brad called for help as Kami, who has first-aid training, ran toward the crash.
“The site was pretty amazing,” she said. “It was almost like daylight because the fire was burning so bright.” The surrounding rock walls reflected the flames as they spread through the engine and cab of the Blazer and into a second car. On the other side of the flames were the destroyed Cadillac and other cars. Heavy smoke rose from the burning tires.
Russell seemed strangely calm, Kami Raymond said.
“He just seemed very detached, like it was no big deal,” she said. When she commented that it was too bad that his Blazer was burning up, she said, he said something like, “That’s all right, I needed another one anyway.”
That statement came as news to defense attorneys, who objected and asked unsuccessfully for the judge to strike it from the record.
“We need to know this information,” said lawyer Diego Vargas. “We need to know what we’re going to come up against.”
The two sides’ attorneys have increasingly bristled at one another in recent days, with the defense arguing that prosecutors are withholding key information and prosecutors accusing the defense of stalling the trial to disrupt the schedules of dozens of witnesses flying in for the trial. At one point Friday, prosecutors accused the defense of deliberately playing to the cameras in the courtroom.
“Enough, enough, enough, enough,” Whitman County Superior Court Judge David Frazier said at one point, as both sides were again trying to talk over each other.
The trial is expected to last another three weeks. To the obvious frustration of prosecutors, it took four days to narrow a jury pool that at one point numbered more than 90 people down to the dozen on the jury and three alternates.
The jury was sworn in Friday morning. They will not be sequestered in some hotel room with the TV unplugged, Frazier assured them.
“We’re not going to do that during the course of this trial,” he said. “You need to go home to your families, you need to sleep in your own bed.”
The trial was moved from Colfax to Kelso in order to find jurors with little knowledge of the extensively covered case. Still, the small-town environment in Kelso has brought its own surprises, as Frazier discovered one day when he went to the Safeway for a quick lunch.
“I ran into, I think, every lawyer and a couple jurors,” he said, warning jurors to avoid any discussion or news about the case.
The trial resumes Monday.