By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily
The aggravated homicide conviction of a truck driver involved in a fatal accident has been overturned by Wyoming’s Supreme Court, which ruled prosecutors failed to prove the driver acted recklessly in the accident.
Justices unanimously overturned the conviction of Tonya Arlene Hightower stemming from a March 2018 accident that claimed the life of Vidal Madera.
According to the ruling, Hightower was driving a semi-truck on Interstate 80 between Cheyenne and Laramie when the truck she was driving crossed the median, entered oncoming lanes and hit Madera’s vehicle.
According to the ruling issued Wednesday, Investigators theorized that Hightower fell asleep while driving and prosecutors accused her of acting in a reckless manner — an element needed to prove aggravated homicide — by disregarding the fact she was fatigued.
A three-day trial resulted in a guilty verdict and Hightower was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison.
Before the jury rendered its verdict, Hightower asked for a judgment in her favor, arguing the evidence was insufficient to show she acted recklessly.
The ruling said investigators found that the truck had driven in the interstate’s median for about seven seconds before entering oncoming traffic lanes and there was no evidence of braking.
According to the ruling, when Hightower was questioned by officers at the time of the accident, she said she did not believe she had fallen asleep. Officers also reported that Hightower did not seem to be impaired.
Hightower said she had taken a hydrocodone and an anti-nausea pill after the accident, but a blood test showed no evidence of any controlled substances in her blood.
Justices said it appeared that prosecutors inferred that Hightower lied about when she took the drugs and then disregarded the side effects of the drugs when deciding to drive.
But the court agreed that the inferences “would illogically require the jury to disregard direct evidence that Ms. Hightower was not impaired and instead base its conclusion on conjecture and speculation.”
In addition, Hightower’s failure to brake before the accident does not support a conclusion that she acted recklessly, justices said.
As a result, the lower court erred when it refused to rule in Hightower’s favor, justices said.
“The state’s evidence … was insufficient for the jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that she acted recklessly,” the ruling said. “Mrs. Hightower’s aggravated homicide by vehicle conviction cannot stand on the inferences on which the state relied.”