With no eyewitnesses, jurors will decide who drove an all-terrain vehicle into a tree after a late-night party — the man found unconscious inside the vehicle or the man found dead outside it.
During his closing argument before a jury Wednesday, Deputy District Attorney Lee Cunningham said it was an intoxicated Garrett Taylor who caused the crash, as proven by his position inside the vehicle and blood evidence.
But Taylor’s attorney, Mitch Haddad, offered a different theory: that both men were thrown from the vehicle after Justin Evans drove it into a tree. Taylor was found in the vehicle, Haddad saidd, because he re-entered it in an effort to get help, only to pass out as a result of his head injuries.
In a case that split two Cambria ranching families, Taylor, 30, faces charges of vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence and vehicle theft.
Cunningham said Taylor and Evans, 20, left a birthday party in Cambria sometime in the early morning hours of July 14, 2012, on an ATV stolen from the party hosts. Intending to drive Evans home on Highways 1 and 46, Cunningham said, Taylor lost control and hit a tree.
Evans’ body was found on the ground, roughly 10 feet from the passenger side of the vehicle. A pathologist testified that he died of multiple blunt force trauma injuries. Taylor was found inside, his feet under the driver’s pedals, his body sprawled across the seats and his head and shoulders hanging face-up over the passenger side.
During the trial, George Ripsom, an accident reconstruction expert for the defense, testified that Taylor, like Evans, had been thrown out of the passenger side when the ATV hit the tree at 30 mph. Injured and confused, Ripsom said, Taylor managed to get up.
“I think he regained the vehicle in an attempt to get help,” Ripsom told jurors.
Taylor, who suffered a concussion and fractured spine, made it to the vehicle, Ripsom said, then lost consciousness.
Taylor was found with a gaping head wound that had bled profusely, Ripsom said. According to defense documents, Taylor made nonsensical statements at the hospital later, suggesting a more severe head injury.
But Cunningham said such bleeding should have left a trail of blood around the ATV if Taylor had walked from the passenger side to the driver’s side.
“Where’s all the other blood that belongs to him if he’s wandering around?” Cunningham asked during Ripsom’s testimony.
Blood evidence helped point to Taylor as the driver, Cunningham said, because Taylor’s blood was found on the driver’s side, inside the vehicle, while Evans’ blood was found on the passenger side.
“Mr. Taylor’s and Mr. Evans’ blood did not magically cross in mid-air,” Cunningham said.
Haddad argued that the CHP rushed to judgment in the case, arresting Taylor less than 90 minutes after the accident was discovered.
“I don’t like police work when things are pre-judged,” he said.
To fit their theory that Taylor was the driver, he said, investigators selectively chose to test some blood samples while ignoring others and failed to search for fingerprints that might show Evans had been the driver.
Because the burden of proof falls on the prosecution, he said, any doubt should clear his client. And in this case, he said, the circumstantial evidence leaves room for two versions of what happened.
“If you have two equally reasonable interpretations, you absolutely have to adopt that which favors the defendant,” he said.
But Cunningham said there was no evidence to support Ripsom’s conclusions.
“He pulled it out of thin air,” Cunningham said. “Or somewhere else.”
Two hours after he was discovered, Cunningham said, Taylor’s blood alcohol level was 0.18 percent — the equivalent of having 10 beers in his system.
Jurors will begin deliberating Thursday.