The parents and most of the Mennonite community near Chewelah have forgiven Clifford Helm for the November 2005 crash that killed five young brothers and sisters. Now it’s up to nine women and three men to forgive Helm, too – or send him to prison for a crash that attorneys on both sides described as a nightmare.
The jury started deliberating just after 2 p.m. Thursday. The 58-year-old Helm, of Deer Park, faces five counts of vehicular homicide for the children’s deaths and one count of vehicular assault against their father, Jeffrey Schrock.
Attorneys lashed out at each other’s cases as they made their final arguments to the jury.
“This is an absolute tragedy,” defense attorney Carl Oreskovich said. “Mr. Helm is living a nightmare. Everyone here is living a nightmare. There is nothing we can do to change that.
“But what we can do is make sure that another tragedy doesn’t occur. We know that Mr. Helm is an innocent man.”
Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Michael Nelson argued that Helm should be held responsible for driving into oncoming traffic on U.S. 395 just north of Spokane on Nov. 1, 2005, before smashing head-on into Schrock’s pickup.
The Schrock children killed in the crash were Carmen, 12; Jana, 10; Carrina, 8; Jerryl, 5; and Craig, 2.
“Mr. Oreskovich says this case doesn’t make a lick of sense. He’s absolutely right,” Nelson said. “But ladies and gentlemen, it happened and five children were killed. Crimes don’t have to be brilliant. They don’t have to be logical. They just have to be crimes.”
Earlier, Clint Francis, also a deputy prosecutor, conceded that the state may never know why Helm’s truck crossed into the wrong lanes.
The defense has argued that Helm fainted after a coughing spell that he doesn’t remember.
“What evidence do we have that Mr. Helm was coughing when he drove off the roadway? We have absolutely zero,” Francis said.
Oreskovich said Helm didn’t know about his possible blackout, which the defense called “cough syncope,” until Nov. 18, 2005, when he fainted while trying to suppress a cough to avoid the pain from his broken ribs.
Francis said that defense amounted to saying “it snowed on Nov. 18 so it must have snowed on Nov. 1. It doesn’t make any sense.”
What is more plausible, the prosecutors argued, was that Helm was reaching for his cell phone. According to evidence submitted at trial, Helm’s wife, Sandy Helm, placed a call to him about the time the crash occurred.
“In all likelihood, we will never know the exact cause of the crash,” Francis said. “We don’t have to. All we have to show is that by Mr. Helm leaving the roadway, he was driving in a way that was in disregard for the safety of others.”
Oreskovich said it was the state’s job to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Helm “made a conscious decision to disregard what was happening.”
“Was the cell phone ringing? No,” Oreskovich said. “For two-and-a-half years that was the theory of their case and it fell apart for them here in this courtroom. Why was the cell phone significant? Because they needed a reason for this to occur.”
Oreskovich recounted the evidence of paid medical experts for the defense, who believe that Helm suffered temporary loss of consciousness as a result of a lack of blood to the brain that can be triggered by a coughing fit. That would explain why he became disoriented long enough for his truck to drift across the median on U.S. 395 and into oncoming traffic, he said.
“They didn’t provide any evidence that it wasn’t syncope,” Oreskovich said of the prosecutors. “If there are 167 neurologists in the state of Washington … and if syncope was truly the issue, why didn’t they bring one or two or three or 167 of them to testify?”
Nelson argued the defense started with the blackout theory and then hired a medical expert from New York to help convince the jury.
“We didn’t need to spend $20,000 on an expert. We had the accident reconstruction,” Nelson said.
Francis, the other prosecutor, pointed out several instances where Helm steered his truck along a path about as long as five football fields from the time his northbound pickup left the roadway, crossed the median and twice entered the southbound lanes. He asked how Helm could be unconscious but still able to steer his truck.
“All these doctors who showed up met Mr. Helm on the day of the trial. It makes you go, ‘Hmmm,’ ” Francis said. “The best Clifford Helm could say is, ‘I might have blacked out.’ “