Change in prosecutor delays bridge DUI fatality case
Nearly two years after a young Vero Beach bicyclist was struck by a car and killed on the 17th Street Bridge, a trial date is expected to be set in September for the DUI manslaughter case against the woman charged with hitting him.
However, both a state prosecutor and the attorney for driver Jamie Williams, who turned 23 this week, say a plea deal remains a possibility.
In fact, the two sides were engaged in "significant negotiations," as defense attorney Alan Landman described them, when Assistant State Attorney Daryl Isenhower, the lead prosecutor initially handling the case, was appointed a St. Lucie County judge in December.
"We'd had a number of productive discussions," Landman said, "but right when we were coming to a reasonable point, they changed prosecutors."
Assistant State Attorney Steve Gosnell, who took over the case in February, acknowledged the previous discussions between Isenhower and Landman, saying a plea deal is "always a possibility."
He said the State Attorney's Office has kept the parents of the victim, Nicholas "Cole" Coppola, updated on the progress of the case, including the possibility of a plea bargain.
"Daryl was in contact with them and they understand what's going on," Gosnell said.
First, though, Gosnell wants to see the findings of an investigation conducted by an automotive industry expert who examined the event data recorder – what Landman called the "black box" – inside Williams' car.
The black boxes, which first appeared in General Motors cars in 1994 and became mandatory on all new vehicles in September 2014, record information that includes speed, throttle position, airbag deployment times, braking, steering angles and whether seatbelts were worn.
The boxes, which store information only for the 20-second period around the crash, were initially installed to help manufacturers learn how their cars performed.
Since the early 2000s, however, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been using the information to determine the circumstances surrounding traffic accidents.
"[The prosecution team] is doing a behind-the-scenes investigation to check on her braking, her speed, any possible swerving," Landman said. "Law enforcement could not get it for them, so they've brought in an outside expert."
Landman, whose practice is based in Melbourne, has hired his own accident-reconstruction expert to challenge the police version of the accident.
According to police, Williams was driving drunk on the bridge at about 1:45 a.m. on Sept. 27, 2014, when her 2008 Honda Accord veered into the bike lane and struck Coppola, knocking him off his bicycle, over the guard rail and into the Indian River Lagoon below.
An autopsy determined that Coppola, 16, died of multiple injuries, including broken ribs and brain trauma.
Police say Williams, who stopped immediately and called 911, submitted to a breathalyzer test which revealed she had a blood-alcohol content of .12 – above the legal limit of .08.
She was charged with DUI manslaughter, misdemeanor counts of possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia, and a traffic violation for failing to stay in a single lane.
Witnesses later told police they saw Williams, who worked as a bartender and waitress at the Citrus Grillhouse, drink a glass of wine and a shot of tequila at Trattorio Dario, an Italian restaurant on Ocean Drive.
They said she arrived at the restaurant's bar at about 12:20 a.m., after her shift at Citrus, and stayed until 1:30 a.m. They said she did not appear to be intoxicated.
Landman said his position remains the same: "That she did not cause the accident. It's our contention that she was driving lawfully in her lane of traffic and the boy rode into her."
Landman said his accident-reconstruction expert will offer testimony supporting such a contention, which includes the likelihood Coppola, nearing the crest of the bridge, became so leg-weary pedaling up a long, steep incline that he unintentionally wobbled and veered into the traffic lane.
Williams told police at the scene that she saw the bicyclists riding on the bridge – Coppola was trailed by two teen friends, Hunter Kraaz and Bradley Moll – and that the boy swerved into her lane.
Even the statements given by Kraaz, who was riding about 30 feet behind Coppola, and Moll, who was walking his bike 250 feet from the crash, indicate Williams believed the bicyclist veered into her lane.
Both teens initially said Williams' car "swerved" into the bike lane and struck Coppola. However, they were deposed separately – one in July, one in September – and, without identifying them by name, Landman said the boy closest to the crash was unable to confirm where the collision occurred.
The case is scheduled to go back to court Sept. 20, when, if no plea deal is made, Circuit Judge Cynthia Cox is expected to set a trial date.
"I'm more focused on sentencing," Landman said of any future plea negotiations. "To get where we want to be, though, they'll probably have to reduce the charge."
In the meantime, Williams is living with her mother and stepfather in Rockledge, and working full-time in a Brevard County restaurant. She was released from the Indian River County Jail on Oct. 1, after posting $100,000 bail.
If convicted of all charges, Williams faces a maximum penalty of 17 years in prison – 15 years for DUI manslaughter and one year each for the two misdemeanors. DUI manslaughter carries a mandatory minimum penalty of four years in prison.
"You can be guilty of DUI and not guilty of DUI manslaughter," Landman said in an earlier interview.
"For it to be DUI manslaughter, you have to have caused the accident. There must be a causation factor."