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Trucker Acquitted In Fatal Crash

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Posted Aug 28th 2002 9:00AM

John W. Kendrix, painted as a drug-crazed, sleepy-eyed trucker who killed five people in a crash along Missouri's I-70, was acquitted Aug. 19 of criminal manslaughter by a Saline County, MO, judge.

Kendrix, an owner-operator from Moultrie, GA, faced five felony counts of second-degree involuntary manslaughter and one misdemeanor count of failure to keep a proper motor carrier driver's record in connection with a fatal accident Aug. 26, 2001, on I-70 near Houstonia, MO.

The accident occurred when Kendrix, who was traveling eastbound, blacked out, lost control of his 2001 Freightliner, crossed the median and collided with a Ford F250 pickup truck hauling a horse trailer.

The pickup's driver, Scott Schrier, 45, and four passengers - Ashley Curl, 15; Debra Sprouse, 45; and Sprouse's two children, Ashley Sprouse, 14; and Zachary Corn, 8, died in the accident.

Without test results proving controlled-substance use, the prosecutor's case focused on the use of over-the-counter medication, driver fatigue and a misdemeanor logbook violation, while the defense's case hinged on a diagnosis of cough syncope, a medical condition where uncontrollable coughing causes a blackout or fainting spell.

The prosecution

Prosecuting attorney Donald G. Stouffer negated the cough syncope defense as something "dreamed up" by Kendrix's employers. Kendrix was leased to PBX Inc., Dakota Falls, NE. Stouffer said the cough was invented by PBX to avoid liability in civil suits against the company by the families of the victims.

The prosecutor described Kendrix's actions as "propelling a 40-ton missile down the road at 70 mph," and continually referred to a "deadly combination" of drugs and caffeine and "pressure to stay on the road at whatever cost."

"He was ill, taking every medication he could get his hands on," the prosecutor said in his closing arguments. "Taking caffeine to keep from going to sleep," Stouffer said. "He then made another choice, to pass because he wasn't going fast enough apparently. He selected the time, place and manner of these people's death."

The defense

Defense attorney Weldon W. "Chip" Perry argued the police made a "rush to judgment" when they initially arrested Kendrix based on the opinions of a drug recognition expert and erroneous blood test results from Fitzgibbon Hospital in Marshall, MO. Initial tests from Fitzgibbon indicated positive results for six controlled substances, including marijuana and alcohol. Headlines blared the damning news.

However, the hospital later announced an error in the test results. Subsequently, the Missouri Highway Patrol said its tests only found traces of caffeine and nicotine. However, the drug recognition expert had received the earlier false results before he administered the drug recognition exam at the county jail the night of the accident.

In his closing arguments, Perry praised Saline County Sheriff Wally George for having the courage to testify on behalf of the defendant. The morning after the accident, Sheriff George met Kendrix at the county jail. He testified about Kendrix's emotional state and behavioral mannerisms, describing him as "extremely quiet," "coherent," "nothing abnormal other than injuries," and "nothing to seem like he was using drugs."

Witnesses and accident reconstruction experts testified there was no steering or braking when Kendrix's truck left the roadway and crossed the median. Experts explained how the rumble strips would have awakened a sleeping driver, causing them to hit the brakes or attempt to steer the vehicle back onto the roadway. The truck's engine computer and other devices showed physical evidence that the brakes were not used and the brake lights did not fire.

On the last day of the trial, Kendrix took the stand in his own defense. The courtroom was filled with friends and family of those who died in the accident, Kendrix's family and numerous attorneys for different families and the trucking company. Kendrix chronicled the day's events.

He told how he got up at 7 a.m. in York, NE, after a good night's sleep. He had stopped early the previous night because he was sick. After having a bowl of grits and two orders of toast, he headed to Montgomery City, MO, with a load of IBP beef.

Between 1 p.m. and 1:30 p.m., he took a dose of Alka-Seltzer and remembers taking two Hall's throat lozenges, one at a time. The rest of his trip was uneventful until the accident.

"The last thing I remember, I was in the left lane, passing a car or truck. I started coughing, it was a deep whooping cough," Kendrix recalled. "Then, I heard people hollerin' 'Get up! Get out!' and I heard an explosion." His truck was on fire and one of the tires had blown.

When he began regaining consciousness, he was on the floor in his truck cab. "I got out on my own, crawled out the windshield," he recounted. "People on the ground assisted me, took me west, 'way from the truck and put me on the side of an embankment."

He recalled people talking to him as he sat alongside the embankment, but his memory wasn't really clear about what he said to them. Next, he was asked to recount the drug recognition exam administered by Cpl. Jerry Hancock of the Missouri Highway Patrol, beginning with two Breathalyzer tests that showed 0.0 percent alcohol.

"What was Hancock's demeanor during the drug recognition exam?" his defense attorney asked. Kendrix stammered, "Uh, I, uh," then silence.

Perry: "Do you know what demeanor means?"

Kendrix: "No." He explained he only had an 8th grade education and sometimes had problems understanding certain questions.

Perry rephrased the question, "What was Hancock's attitude during the drug recognition exam?"

Kendrix: "After I passed the breath test, his demeanor seemed like it was drugs."

Kendrix's answer sparked another objection from Stouffer, which began another of many standoffs between Perry and Stouffer, who spent much of the three-day trial sparring over questions and being asked by the judge to approach the bench.

When Kendrix's testimony continued, he told the court Hancock accused him of smoking marijuana. He finished his testimony by stating he had used no unlawful drugs, no other medications except Alka-Seltzer and cough drops, and was not sleepy.

On redirect, after being cross-examined by the prosecution, Kendrix had the opportunity to explain his reactions and answers to questions from officers the night of the accident.

He was asked, "When someone asks you a question, how do you answer them?

Kendrix: "Slow, because I have to think first."

"Do you tell them more than what they ask?"

Kendrix: "I only tell them what is asked, and no more."

After Kendrix's testimony, when the court recessed for the evening meal, one of the victim's friends sobbed as she dealt with what she heard in the courtroom. "He's not guilty. I wanted so badly for him to be guilty. It hurts, but this man is not guilty."

The verdict
"This has been a very difficult case, with the death of five individuals, including three promising young children," Judge Dennis A. Rolf said.

"It's been hard on everybody, the victim's family, the prosecutor, the defendant and his attorney. I'm sure you can see it's been tough on me." He fought back tears and paused to regain his composure.

First, he ruled guilty on count 6 - the misdemeanor logbook violation. He ordered Kendrix to pay a $400 fine plus court costs. Next, he addressed the second-degree involuntary manslaughter charges, which are based on a new statute, last revised in 1999 by the Missouri Legislature.

"No case law discusses this statute," he said. However, he pointed out, case law does define criminal negligence. The definition in the Missouri statute says, "A person acts with criminal negligence or is criminally negligent when he fails to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that circumstances exist or a result will follow, and such failure constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care which a reasonable person would exercise in the situation."

"There must be a choice or decision or an act by the defendant that causes ultimate results," the judge said. "If I had my choice, I wouldn't be here. I cannot bring these people back, nor can I eliminate the guilt and responsibility that John Kendrix feels."

"Was the defendant criminally negligent?" he asked. "Although crossing the median obviously constitutes gross deviation, it was not an act by the defendant."

Although Judge Rolf said he didn't "buy the coughing defense," he did believe the physical evidence proved there was no swerving or braking, which proved Kendrix blacked out, and did not simply fall asleep.

"As for the use of drugs, I do not believe the legislature intended the use of cold medicine to be gross deviation from the standard of care which a reasonable person would exercise in the situation," the judge said. "If so, anybody that takes cold medicine and drives a vehicle could be on trial."

Judge Rolf agreed with the defense attorney's closing argument, which said the prosecution's case did not meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt because it did not quantify the amount of medication in the defendant's system. "On counts 1 through 5, I find the defendant 'not guilty.'"

Defense attorney Perry told reporters, "Justice was done in this courtroom today. It's been a long time coming. It's nice to know there are two good men with character and courage in Saline County, both of them elected officials."

SIDEBAR - The cough syncope dispute

n the trial, prosecuting attorney Donald G. Stouffer scoffed at the cough syncope defense as something hatched up by the attorneys working for Kendrix' employers, PBX.

Stouffer said the cough was invented by PBX to avoid liability in civil suits against the company by the families of those killed in the crash.

"Cough syncope was bought, paid for and arranged by PBX," Stouffer said. "It's not until PBX decides you need cough syncope that Kendrix decided he coughed real hard."

Two of OOIDA's staff visited Kendrix at the Saline County Jail just days after the accident, dispatched by the association's president, Jim Johnston. OOIDA's headquarters is in Grain Valley, about an hour from where the accident occurred.

Sandi Soendker, managing editor of Land Line Magazine and Angel Burnell, executive assistant to Johnston, said the cough defense was not invented. Kendrix told them he was sick and had a real bad cough.

"We asked him what happened. He clearly indicated he had a coughing spell and blacked out," said Soendker.

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