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Jessica Hood set to stand trial in March for Weaver Road deaths, cell phone evidence is key to the case

By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor

The Jessica Hood trial is now scheduled to begin in March and the reliability of technology that determines the time a cell phone was used will be key to the case.

Jessica Hood leaves a Boone County courtroom following a pretrial conference Wednesday. Hood potentially faces more than 30 years in jail if convicted on all counts in the death of three people and injuries to two others in an accident of Weaver Road in 2015. The case will hinge largely on the interpretation and reliability of cell phone data (photos by Mark Hansel).

At a pretrial conference Wednesday, Circuit Judge James R. Schrand scheduled a pretrial conference for January 4, and a trial date of March 19.

Hood was involved in an accident on Weaver Road in March, 2015, that killed two toddlers and their grandfather and injured two other people.

Hood is charged with three counts of Manslaughter-2nd Degree and two counts of Assault- 4th Degree, minor injury, and has pleaded not guilty.

Investigators say that on the day of the incident, Charles Napier and Susan Elam were pulling three small children in wagons on Weaver Road after returning from lunch at Gramma’s Pizza on US 42. They were headed southbound in the northbound lane when police say a Chevrolet Malibu driven by Hood, then 22, left the road, went onto the shoulder and struck the family.

Pedestrian traffic has steadily increased in recent years on Weaver Road, which has 8-foot shoulders and no sidewalks.

Napier, 54, and his twin 13-month-old grandchildren, Samantha and Sean May, died from injuries sustained in the incident. Another grandchild, Ethan May, and Elam, the children’s aunt, suffered non-life threatening injuries.

Prosecutors are expected to argue that Hood was using her cell phone at the time of the crash and will use expert testimony to help prove that point.

Hood’s attorney, Daniel Dickerson requested that a trial date be set at the pretrial conference in January.

“We haven’t gotten a reader, which expands the information (regarding the cellphone) that we received and it’s got some time stamps on it and some other things,” Dickerson said. “We need to get that, take a look at that, go over that with the client and make a determination as to whether or not we need an expert.”

Boone Commonwealth Attorney Linda Tally Smith pushed to have the date set Wednesday. She said it is unfair to the families of those killed and injured in the accident to keep moving the trial date back.

The family of Jessica Hood waits for a pretrial conference to begin Wednesday. The conference was delayed while prosecutors and Hood’s attorney met with an FBI investigator to get information on the interpretation of cell phone data. Hood is at far right.

“Obviously the victims’ family are very upset about the fact that it has taken this long to get us to where we are,” Tally Smith said. “I would prefer to set a trial date at this time. With them left in limbo of not even knowing what to look at, at this point in time, it’s very frustrating for them and I understand that completely.”

Dickerson requested an April trial date, but Schrand decided that the earlier date should allow enough time for preparation.

“I have to reschedule trials all the time,” Schrand said. “I have no problem setting it and I don’t mind continuing it if something comes up.”

The trial was originally scheduled to begin in August, but was moved to December 4, when last-minute evidence was introduced. That date was again changed when a conference was scheduled with an FBI investigator to explain the technology employed to analyze data and determine when the cell phone was used, in relation to the time of the accident.

That conference was originally set for Tuesday, but the FBI investigator had a schedule conflict, so it was moved back to Wednesday, just prior to the pretrial conference.

Hood was offered a plea deal that would have greatly reduced the amount of time she would potentially have to serve in jail, if convicted, but turned it down.

Dickerson said she is adamant that she was not using her phone at the time of the accident.

Manslaughter in the second degree, often referred to as involuntary manslaughter in other states, is a Class C felony, punishable by between five to 10 years in prison. Assault 4th degree is a misdemeanor and carries a punishment of up to one year in jail.

In Kentucky, a person is guilty of manslaughter in the second degree when he or she wantonly causes the death of another person, including, but not limited to, situations where the death results from the person’s operation of a motor vehicle, according to KRS 507.040.

Boone Circuit Judge James R. Schrand set a March 19 date for the trial of Jessica Hood.

Reckless homicide, an offense closely related to manslaughter-second degree, is a Class D felony that carries a penalty of between one and five years in prison upon conviction.

Both manslaughter-second degree and reckless homicide are defined as unintentionally causing the death of another person. It is not clear if the lesser offense was part of the Commonwealth’s plea offer, because terms were not revealed.

If convicted on all counts, Hood could be sentenced to as few as five years, or up to 20 years, depending on whether she is sentenced to serve her terms consecutively, or concurrently.

If convicted and sentenced concurrently, she would serve all the sentences at the same time. If sentenced to serve the terms consecutively she would have to finish serving the sentence for one offense before serving the sentence for any other offense.

Under Kentucky law sentencing for Class C and D felonies cannot exceed 20 years, no matter how many counts there are.

Following the pretrial conference, Dickerson acknowledged that his case will hinge strongly on the interpretation of the cell phone evidence. He said courts across the state have differed on the reliability of the technology used to interpret cell phone data.

The question is, is the technology there to say whether or not she was using the phone at the time she was operating the vehicle,” Dickerson said. “They do it with tower tracking and some other things and there is a difference of opinion as to whether or not that is voodoo science or how accurate it is as far as location and time of usage.”

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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