Driver found guilty of injuring deputy|[12/1/05]
Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 1, 2005
Trial jurors told Wednesday that Ronald Vaughn was under the influence of the illicitly manufactured drug Ecstasy when his car slammed into Deputy Sheriff Mike Hollingsworth later returned a verdict of guilty, meaning the 25-year-old now faces up to 25 years in prison.
Circuit Judge Isadore Patrick immediately ordered Vaughn into the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, which is to prepare a presentencing report before Vaughn faces Patrick again at 9 a.m. Dec. 16.
Assistant District Attorney Mike Bonner, who prosecuted the three-day trial, said the state would include a request for the maximum for the conviction of aggravated driving under the influence of a controlled substance.
“We feel the case deserves every bit of it,” Bonner said after jurors deliberated about an hour and 45 minutes and returned their verdict about 5:45 p.m.
Hollingsworth, now 40, was outside his patrol car directing a funeral procession into Green Acres Memorial Park, 191 U.S. 80, on Feb. 9, 2004, when, witnesses said, Vaughn careened a Buick sedan into the left lane, past vehicles in the procession and into Hollingsworth.
The impact launched the third-generation law enforcement officer, by one witness’ estimate, at least 10 feet into the air and over a pickup before he landed at least 20 feet away.
He landed against a concrete curb, blood flowing from his mouth and head as funeral-goers gathered around him and prayed.
Following weeks in a coma, he made a slow recovery from brain and other injuries, Dr. Stuart Yablon of Jackson told jurors.
“He has an appointment in February,” Bonner said. “Hopefully that will be the last one.”
Sheriff Martin Pace spoke for Hollingsworth and his department, saying he thought the state’s evidence in the case was overwhelming.
“We look forward to Mike’s continued recovery,” Pace said. “We’re obviously very pleased with the jury’s verdict, although not surprised.”
Vaughn’s attorney, Eugene Perrier of Vicksburg, argued that the state’s case was based on crime-laboratory work and that the results of the key finding of that work were unreliable. Vaughn did not testify.
Forensic toxicologist Dr. Edward J. Barbieri of National Medical Services of Willow Grove, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, said a blood sample he was sent tested positive for the drug known as Ecstasy and had lower concentrations of speed and marijuana.
NMS was contracted by the Mississippi Crime Laboratory to test the sample for illicit drugs, the then-chief of the lab’s toxicology section, Thomas Pittman of the University of Southern Mississippi, testified Tuesday. Trooper Scott Henley testified Tuesday that a sample of Vaughn’s blood was taken at River Region Medical Center during the hour after the wreck.
Perrier questioned Barbieri about how NMS documented its tracking of the sample. He also argued that the vial containing the sample had been insufficiently labeled and that additional measures should have been taken to confirm that the sample was from Vaughn.
The charge on which Vaughn was tried required the prosecution to prove, in part, that Hollingsworth’s injuries were serious and permanent. Perrier argued they were not, using Hollingsworth’s testimony that he feels ready to return to full duty.
Hollingsworth returned to work as a deputy, on desk duty, about seven months after he was injured. He now works full time, but has not been returned to work in the patrol division, Sheriff Martin Pace said.
“Ladies and gentlemen, that right there is a miracle,” Bonner said while pointing to Hollingsworth, sitting beside his wife, Debbie, during closing arguments. “The fact that he’s not dead.”
The blood sample NMS tested came from someone who was “definitely impaired in terms of driving a motor vehicle,” Barbieri testified. Among the effects Ecstasy has been shown to have on drivers are enhanced impulsivity, difficulty maintaining attention, and “total lack of attention to their surroundings; and focusing on one thing” to the exclusion of the bigger picture, Barbieri added.
Perrier countered that other effects of the drug, including its enhancing “a feeling of intimacy, empathy for individuals,” seemed inconsistent with its alleged effects on Vaughn that day.
Two witnesses testified for the defense. One said she had given birth the day before the wreck to a child fathered by Vaughn. The other said she and Vaughn had slept together the night before the wreck. Both said they had not known Vaughn to use illicit drugs.
Vaughn was arrested at the scene of the wreck, has been in county custody since and remains so pending sentencing.
On the day Hollingsworth was struck, Vaughn was on post-release supervision after serving one of three years of a prison term for a 1999 conviction for drive-by shooting/shooting into an occupied dwelling.
During Hollingsworth’s recovery, there was an outpouring of community support, including many benefits and fund-raisers. His father, Jack Hollingsworth, a retired officer who is also a professional gospel singer, credited the people’s prayers with saving his son’s life.
The trial was delayed due to changes in defense counsel. Patrick appointed Perrier as Vaughn’s first attorney in the case. Then Vaughn retained Jackson attorney Chokwe Lumumba, who was subsequently suspended from practicing law by the Mississippi Supreme Court, and Perrier became counsel again.
Bonner said Hollingsworth’s injuries together with the delays had created a frustrating process for Hollingsworth’s family, the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office itself.
“It’s been a difficult case to get tried, and everybody is hugely relieved that it has been tried and is over, this part of it,” Bonner said.
The fact that Hollingsworth was critically injured while standing on a road controlling traffic for a funeral procession highlighted again the danger inherent in the law-enforcement profession, Bonner added.
“They risk their lives for us even doing the simplest tasks,” Bonner said.