BOISE – State Supreme Court justices have thrown out the second-degree murder conviction of a North Idaho man, citing prosecutorial misconduct and the likelihood that an Idaho State Police officer committed perjury during the 2006 trial.
Jonathan Wade Ellington, of Hayden, was sentenced to 25 years for second-degree murder and 15 years each on two counts of aggravated battery charges for running over a woman during what was described as a road-rage encounter on New Year’s Day 2006.
But Friday, Idaho’s high court unanimously ruled Ellington should get a new trial.
In the 32-page ruling, the justices wrote the Kootenai County prosecutor engaged in misconduct during the trial, in part by engaging in improper questioning meant to turn the jury against Ellington.
They also concluded that a veteran Idaho State Police officer, Cpl. Fred Rice, a witness for the prosecution, gave testimony that conflicted with statements on accident reconstruction he’d made in previous court cases and contradicted training materials he had personally prepared.
“It is impossible to believe there was any truth to the testimony of Cpl. Rice,” wrote Justice Warren Jones. “It is abhorrent to this court, as it would be to any other court, that a man can be sentenced to twenty-five years for second-degree murder based primarily on the false testimony of a trooper of this state.”
Jones wrote that a 1st District Court judge in Kootenai County erred in May 2007 when he refused to give Ellington a new trial, despite being presented with evidence of these problems with the prosecution’s case.
Rice didn’t return a phone call left by the Associated Press Friday at the Idaho State Police in Meridian. He’s been employed with the agency since 1983.
Ellington, who is being held at Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise, was 45 when Vonette Lee Larsen, 41, was struck and killed in Athol. Ellington was accused of driving the vehicle that hit her and a car being driven by her two daughters.
Larsen died of massive head trauma.
At Ellington’s high-profile trial in 2006, Rice was called to dispute testimony of the defense’s accident reconstruction expert, Dr. William Skelton.
Skelton contended there was an average perception-reaction time of 1.5 seconds, in support of Ellington’s contention that he’d had insufficient time to stop his vehicle before hitting Larsen.
Skelton also told the jury that the debris field created by the crash indicated that Ellington had been in the proper lane of travel.
During rebuttal, however, Rice told the jury that Skelton’s 1.5-second reaction time could not be used because “there is no average perception reaction time in the world.”
Rice also told the jury that spray in a debris field was unreliable in determining characteristics of such an accident and was “not going to tell me where the point of impact happened.”
Attorneys for Ellington later discovered a separate court case involving a pedestrian collision in Elmore County. In that case, Rice had said that a debris field “definitely coincides with where the impact point is.” He also testified in that case about reaction time that corresponded with the testimony given by Skelton.
Ellington’s attorneys also submitted evidence that the training materials Rice prepared and used to teach courses on accident reconstruction stated that the average perception-reaction time was 1.6 seconds, nearly the same time Skelton told jurors.
“It simply cannot be said that it was not probable that this new evidence that showed Cpl. Rice testified falsely, and likely intentionally, in the Ellington trial would have affected the jury’s determination of reasonable doubt, because it went straight to the heart of the defense’s main theory of the case,” Jones wrote.
The justices also wrote that the Kootenai County prosecutor engaged in misconduct, concluding that the prosecution’s use of “intentional, gratuitous references” to Larsen “having been run over” had been calculated to appeal to the emotions of the jurors.
“Repeatedly reiterating the image of Mr. Ellington ‘running over’ Mr. Larsen’s ‘wife’ was wholly unnecessary,” Jones wrote for the court. “We are also troubled that the prosecutor seems to have completely ignored the court’s admonition to ‘move on,’ by immediately asking another inflammatory question. The court should not have to lecture the prosecutor in front of the jury in order to get its point across that the current line of questioning is inappropriate.”
Kootenai County Deputy Prosecutor Art Verharen was the lead attorney in the trial, according to news accounts.
Kootenai County Prosecutor Barry McHugh, who took office in 2009 after Ellington’s trial was concluded, did not return phone messages left at his office Friday.