UPDATE: The Arkansas State Police Commission ruled unanimously to reinstate Trooper Andrew Rhew. Read on for David Koon's dispatches from the hearing throughout the day.
Caught after the Commission's decision came in, Arkansas State Police commander Col. JR Howard said "The commission has spoken, and we will abide by their decision," adding that the ASP will work to make sure Rhew makes a seamless transition back into the organization. Asked if the Commission's decision is an indictment of electronic data over old-fashioned crash reconstruction techniques, Howard said: "I think it shows that even the experts still disagree on things."
Today's dispatches from the Commission hearing room:
An appeal hearing is underway today at the Arkansas State Police Commission for Andrew Rhew, the state trooper who was fired (twice) as a result of the fatal crash in which his patrol car collided in Manila with a car driven by Vickie Freemyer, a Blytheville teacher, while he was rushing to a call in Osceola.
The state police said today that a black box in Rhew's car recorded the trooper going 103 mph in a 45 mph zone with no lights or sirens. Rhew was en route to make a call to arrest someone with an outstanding warrant at a driver's license testing station in Osceola.
Rhew's counsel, Robert Newcomb, told the commission that Freemyer was at fault for the crash.
"The accident is almost a red herring in that she didn't have the right away, was supposed to stop and pulled out right in front of him," he said in his opening statement.
Newcomb said he would present four witnesses who disagree with what the black box reported and 26 state troopers who will testify that they don't turn on their lights or sirens when going on calls for a number of reasons.
A lot of troopers speed without their lights and sirens on, Newcomb said. "Are we going to fire the majority of the state police?"
According to state police, the impact of Knew's trooper car on Freemyer's Toyota sedan pushed Freemyer's passenger door inside the vehicle to where it touched the steering wheel.
Freemyer's vehicle was moved by a wrecker before Trooper Bobby Clemence, a member of the State Police accident reconstruction scene, arrived, so he wasn't able to determine final rest, which he said is crucial in determining speed in an accident. The best estimate he could offer, Clemence said, was 59 miles per hour for a minimum speed.
Asked if the damage done to Freemyer's vehicle was consistent with a 103-mph-impact, Clemence said he thought it was consistent with a 59-60 mph range. He said he wasn't aware of the what the black box had recorded until months later.
The appeal is likely to extend into tomorrow.
UPDATE: In the second phase of the appeal hearing, Retired Trooper Lt. Pete Westerman, also of the State Police crime scene reconstruction team, said that Trooper Clemence figured his crash data based on the measure of linear momentum, which only works if you've got every detail correct. Two problems in Clemence's findings, according to Westerman: Clemence estimated the weight of the trooper car instead of finding an accurate reading and didn't take into account the two to four feet of mud in the ditch where the two cars ended up. "Mud and water is kind of like a glove catching a ball," Westerman said.
He also said that he tested a Dodge Charger, like the one Rhew was driving, at 103 mph and its RPMs matched what the crash data recorder captured.
In cross examination, Westerman admitted that "the crush" of the car didn't square with an impact of 103 mph. "In my experience if you have an impact of more than 70 mph you actually have disintegration," he said. When asked if he'd ever responded to a call exceeding the speed limit without using his lights or siren, he said he had many times, adding "that's the nature of the beast."
He also said that the crash data recorder in the Toyota said that the Freemyer was going about 11 mph at impact and that the car never stopped at the stop sign.
Next up, Corporal Douglas Cash, also of the accident reconstruction team, talked about the information on Rhew's crash data recorder. Two seconds before impact, the crash data recorder said the Charger was doing 101 mph. One second before, it said the car was doing 103 mph. Nine-tenths of a second before impact, the brakes were applied. And by 1/10th of a second, it had slowed to 87 mph. The speed at impact was 84 mph to 86 mph. According to crash data, the Charger slid 118 feet after the crash.
Asked if he'd ever exceeded the speed limit without using his lights or sirens, Cash said he had several times.
Next up, George Hall Jr., a forensic engineer from Tulsa, said he thought other witnesses were "glossing over" the impact. In his investigation, he said he noticed that a piece of the Charger's bumper was embedded in the Toyota and that the impact was "as substantial as [he'd] seen other than in a semi-truck impact." Hall said he had no reason to doubt the crash data recorder. It's records matched his findings.
Colonel JR Howard, Director of the State Police, testified next. Asked why he fired Rhew, he said he went to crash scene three times and said, "There's something about seeing the lay of the land... you just get a feel for the scene." He said he looked at that and saw the damage to Trooper Rhew's vehicle and thought 59 mph didn't mesh. Howard said Manila, Ark. is a very populated area and that Rhew's speed was extreme for the area.
"I can't help but think, my gosh, if he'd had his lights on we wouldn't be sitting here today," Howard said.
Asked by attorney Newcomb if the Manila police department had clocked Rhew at 100 mph, if he would've fired Rhew, Howard said no. Asked if he had 50 officers who say they've exceeded speed limit if he'd fire them all, Howard said no. "It's hard to do a scenario. Each case is based on the facts of each particular incident... I had to deal with cold, hard facts."
UPDATE II: Special Agent Ron Hitt of the Arkansas State Police’s Criminal Investigation Division, testified that he investigated the accident and arrived about an hour after the wreck.
Hitt interviewed several witnesses, including one woman who was parked at a nearby Sonic Drive-In and was the only person who actually saw the accident occur. According to Hitt’s testimony, the woman told him that Freemyer’s Toyota had only tapped the brakes at the stop sign before pulling into the path of Rhew’s patrol car.
Hitt also testified that he spoke with the doctor who examined Freemyer’s body. The doctor told Hitt he had found three medications in her system: two antidepressants and one amphetamine of the kind used to treat attention deficit disorder. Hitt said the doctor told him the amount of amphetamine in Freemyer’s body was nearly three times what is considered a therapeutic level.
The doctor told Hitt that Freemyer would have been ”overstimulated and at least mildly impaired” and that her driving ability would have been compromised.
In what has become something of a recurring theme, Newcomb asked Hitt if he had ever driven at a high rate of speed without turning on his siren and blue lights. Hitt said he had.
Tommy Wicker, a retired captain with the Arkansas State Police, testified that members of Troop C — Rhew’s troop — had been instructed to get to the Osceola station post haste in the event of an arrest call.
Lt. Robert Speer, an assistant troop commander with Troop C, confirmed that there have been problems with the Osceola testing center and said that starting in July 2009, troopers had been instructed to get to the center quickly if there was trouble.
“We arrest people over there every testing day,” Speer said.
Captain Keith Eremea, who has been a trooper for 34 years, said he too had driven at speeds of up to 150 mph without using blue lights and sirens. He said that although he wouldn’t drive 103 mph within city limits without using lights and sirens, there are times when it’s preferable not to use them because they can cause other drivers to panic.
UPDATE III: Dr. Larry Williams, retired professor from ASU Jonesboro, testifying for the appellant, said he believes that the data recorder in Rhew's car was inaccurate, based on three factors: The vehicle damage wasn't enough to indicate a 100 mph crash; the two cars would've stuck together, he said. The speed listed was inconsistent with how far the two cars traveled. There were no skid marks; even with anti-lock breaks, you still have shadow marks, he said.
Based on his observations of the crash data, Williams said Rhew was doing 68 to 70 mph.
Rhew, who was leaning forward and bumping his feet up and down nervously throughout the appeal, told the commission that he lived north of Manila and was very familiar with the area. If called out to the license center, he was to "go," Rhew said his superiors had told him.
"At the time of the call, there was quite a bit of traffic presence and I personally felt that it would do more damage to activate emergency equipment," he said.
He said he wasn't paying attention to speedometer, and he 200 to 300 yards away when he first saw the Freemyer's car easing across.
Asked by a commissioner if he was going 100 mph, Rhew said no.
Dr. Hall, the crash scene investigator who testified earlier, once again returned to rebut Williams portrayal of the scene. In the US, there are 1,000 people on the civilian side who are fairly active in the crash investigation, he said. "Dr. Williams is the only one of us among 1,000 who is doing this work who would testify that CDRs are inaccurate."
The data in a black box comes from the same place as your speedometer does, he said.