Updated: 12:50 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3, 2012 | Posted: 9:49 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012

Former prosecutor not guilty in deadly crash

State didn’t prove its claims, judge declares.

By Tiffany Y. Latta

Staff Writer

SPRINGFIELD — Former Clark County prosecutor James A. Berry jumped up and hugged his attorney after he was he found not guilty of leaving the scene of a crash that killed a 37-year-old man.

“After nine months of this hanging over my head, it’s a big relief,” Berry said. “I never thought I’d be indicted. It’s been hell.”

Prosecutors had sought a conviction for failure to stop after an accident after Berry struck and killed Springfield Twp. resident James E. Pierce about 10 p.m. May 4, minutes after Pierce stumbled onto the southbound lane of Springfield-Xenia Road.

Berry had just returned to Springfield from a party in Columbus and continued his drive home, he testified, because he thought he hit a pothole.

After a two-day bench trial in Clark County Common Pleas Court this week, visiting retired Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge John W. Kessler announced his decision Thursday afternoon.

Kessler said the state didn’t prove Berry knew he struck Pierce.

After the verdict, Pierce’s mother, Janet Finfrock, said: “He’s not guilty?” She buried her face in her hands and sobbed.

She was comforted initially by family and friends and then sobbed in the arms of Franklin County Assistant Prosecutor Keith McGrath, who was appointed to handle the case.

Kessler will file a written opinion on the case at a later date.

McGrath said Berry was required by law to stop and call police after a collision with a person or property, but the defense said Berry had to have knowledge he struck someone.

“It could have gone either way. I had no idea what the judge was going to do, but I have to abide by the decision, whether I think it’s right or wrong,” McGrath said.

Defense attorney Darnell E. Carter said justice was served.

“This was a horrible ordeal for a man who has done a lot for this community ... The outcome was a just verdict,” Carter said.

Berry testified he didn’t know he hit Pierce until about 6 a.m., when he found human tissue on his damaged four-door Honda Accord and read in the Springfield News-Sun that a man was killed in a hit-skip crash across from the Wayside Tavern, 2288 S. Yellow Springs St.

Berry said he drove to the crash scene, returned home, tried to eat breakfast and then called two attorneys, reaching Richard Mayhall, who then contacted Clark County Prosecutor Andy Wilson at about 10 a.m. May 5.

The attorneys Berry called, John Butz and Mayhall, were at the party in Columbus and represented Berry for months before quitting the case because they were potential witnesses.

Mayhall, who hosted the party, testified that Berry cooperated with authorities and turned over his vehicle, only removing law books before the car was confiscated by authorities.

The bumper of Berry’s vehicle was heavily damaged, the wheel well liner above the right tire had been ripped off and was recovered at the scene, and blood and human tissue was found on his car.

A Wayside Tavern surveillance camera recorded the crash, which was played in court.

The video showed Pierce, who had cocaine in his urine and a blood-alcohol level of 0.31, stumble into Springfield-Xenia Road and Berry’s vehicle slam into him as Pierce tried to get up.

The vehicle raised up and then crashed to the ground, creating sparks and leaving tire marks and scratches on the asphalt.

Berry testified he was trying to time the traffic light in front of him when the collision occurred. He never applied his brakes, the video shows.

“Mr. Berry’s testimony is that he didn’t see him and you have to believe him,” Smith said in closing arguments.

Butz had tears in his eyes after the verdict was read.

“It’s a case where nobody wins, but I’m pleased with the verdict. I’m sorry about their loss, but the system works,” Butz said.

An unidentified relative of Pierce said as she left the courtroom enraged:

“I knew it. We all knew he was going to get away with it. We have two sets of laws around here. One for them and one for us. He knew what he did.”

Berry said he feels sorry for Pierce’s family and added that the last nine months have stressful for him, too.

“I feel sorry for them, but I’ve been going through hell with this thing, which was no fault of my own.”

 
 

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