Jury finds man guilty in July 4 van crash that killed 4, seriously injured 2
Chad Eric Stewart was found guilty on six felony counts Friday afternoon related to a July 4 crash near Ponsford that killed four people and seriously injured two others.
There were tears on both sides of the aisle, and Becker County Sheriff Tim Gordon led about 10 of Stewart's family members to his office from the courtroom to answer any questions.
A jury of nine women and three men deliberated about three and a half hours before reaching a decision around 3:30 p.m. Friday.
District Judge Peter Irvine ordered a pre-sentence investigation. A sentencing date has not yet been set.
Earlier Friday, attorneys for the defense and prosecution sparred during their closing arguments.
The basic question for the jury to decide was whether Stewart was driving the minivan that crashed and rolled near Ponsford July 4.
Stewart, 26, who lists residences in Ponsford and Detroit Lakes, faced six felony counts accusing him of causing the death of Gregory Norcross, 45, Kayla Norcross, 24, Charlene Norcross, 22, and Scott Adams, 28, all of Ponsford.
He was also charged with seriously injuring Donna Peake, 22, and Amber Goodman, 23, both of Ponsford.
Peake is paralyzed. Goodman suffered traumatic brain injury and multiple broken bones.
The two told the jury different accounts of what happened on the night of the crash:
Peake, who testified for the prosecution, said Stewart was the driver.
Goodman, who testified for the defense, said Adams was driving at the time of the accident.
Both suffer from memory problems as a result of the crash. Both were thrown from the van and found lying on the ground. Peake was screaming in pain from her injuries. Goodman was unconscious.
In her closing argument, Assistant Becker County Attorney Tammy Merkins said DNA evidence on the driver's side airbag and on an impact site on the windshield point to Stewart as the driver and rule out Adams.
All expert witnesses, including an accident re-construction specialist hire by the defense, said that the airbag could have DNA from anybody in the van, but definitely would have DNA from the driver.
Stewart's DNA was among those found on the airbag and on an impact site on the windshield directly in front of the driver. Adams' DNA was found at neither location.
Defense attorney Nancy Bowman said the state should have tested more windshield impact sites, and the DNA results were inconclusive.
"The DNA findings in the case make sense in both the state's theory and our theory," she told the jury in her closing argu-ment.
"DNA tells us very little in this case ... so when Ms. Merkins tells you Scott (Adams) could not be the driver because his DNA is not on the airbag, that contradicts the testimony of her own experts."
She added that both the airbag and impact site had DNA from several people, and must be disregarded since those in the van were bounced around "like pin balls," and it was not possible to determine who was sitting where.
All agree that the van was traveling at a minimum speed of 55-62 mph when it missed a curve on County Road 37 near Ponsford, went off the road, and the driver tried to steer it back onto the road before hitting a field approach.
The van flew 88 feet in the air, landed, continued and rolled -- a total distance of 413 feet from the point it left the roadway.
Bodies and badly injured people were found 40-50 feet in different directions from where the van came to rest.
The prosecution says Stewart was the driver. He owns the van and was seen driving it by a number of people on the evening of the crash.
The defense says Stewart switched places late in the evening with Scott Adams, and that Adams was actually driving at the time of the crash.
The defense said Stew-art suffered relatively minor injuries because he was in the middle seat, where the two other survivors were sitting. The back of the van was very badly damaged.
The prosecution said Stewart walked away from the crash because he was protected by the driver's side airbag (the only working airbag in the van), and he was able to hold on to the steering wheel.
The defense argued that Adams was not protected in the driver's seat because the airbag expanded and deflated in less than a second, and the van was airborne longer than that, so that when it hit, Adams did not have airbag protection.
Arguments on both sides were based on a detailed State Patrol accident reconstruction report, autopsy reports and state DNA testing.
The defense said Adams suffered abdominal injuries from hitting the steer-ing wheel. The prosecution said medical experts said there was no way to determine how during the crash those injuries were incurred.
Merkins argued that Goodman's testimony is suspect because she is the defendant's domestic partner and they have two children together.
Goodman was also accused of being uncooperative with investigators and changing her story to protect Stewart.
"She never seems to say the same thing in the same way twice," Merkins said.
The defense said there's no way that Goodman would lie about an incident that caused the death of four of her friends, and in turn raised doubts about Peake's memory in the time prior to the crash.
Both sides said the physical and forensic evidence supported their witness's version of events.
"We can't prove Scott (Adams) was driving -- neither can the state prove that Chad (Stewart) was driving," said Bow-man.
Bowman said police "jumped to the conclusion" that Stewart had been driving and channeled their investigation in that direction from the very beginning.
Merkins said Stewart brought those suspicions on himself immediately after the crash, when he denied that he had ever seen the minivan before, and asked a stranger at the scene to tell police that Stewart had been riding with him that night.
Stewart was also overheard by a deputy in the emergency room after the crash telling his father "I'm sorry, dad, I'm so sorry."
That's something only a guilty person would say, Merkins said.
Bowman said people apologize for all sorts of reasons and the jury shouldn't put much stock in a snippet of overheard conversation.
Stewart was confused, intoxicated, disoriented and injured after the crash and behaved ac-cordingly at the scene, she added.
"Try to put yourself in his shoes," Bowman told the jury, "He had just been in a horrible accident. If he was trying to cook up a story, wouldn't he say 'I wasn't driving'? But once he says 'I wasn't in the accident,' there was no attempt to find out the truth."