A Frostproof, Florida man received a life sentence plus 15 years, after a jury in Wauchula determined that the man, who worked as a truck driver, was impaired by drugs when he struck a Toyota Corolla and killed the two women inside in 2011. The sentence has been hailed as a victory for the families and friends of the victims who had waited through a lengthy court process for the ruling, which gave some solace for those affected by the fatal truck accident.
Jury Deliberated for Less Than an Hour Before Decision in Florida Truck Accident Case
The trial of Michael John Phillips, the driver accused of causing the fatal accident, took place in Hardee County, Florida, with numerous family members and friends of Jennifer Jenkins and Kathleen O’Callaghan, the two women killed in the big rig crash, looking on.
The trial was a long time coming. The initial investigation into the Naples truck crash took more than 10 months, and once the truck driver posted the $20,000 bail after his arrest, fifty-two-year-old Phillips fled for months. Other changes in the Hardee County court system added further delays, eventually resulting in a gap of over five years between the truck crash and Phillips’ trial.
Once the trial was complete, however, action was swift. The jury took less than an hour to determine that Phillips was guilty of two counts of DUI manslaughter, among other charges.
Judge Gave Maximum Sentence Plus Some in DUI Truck Crash
The minimum sentence that Phillips could have received after the jury ruling was 25 years, but Circuit Court Judge Marcus Ezelle instead gave the maximum sentence of life in prison for the first count of DUI manslaughter, and then added 15 years for the second count of DUI manslaughter.
Sentencing in the Florida court system is partially decided using a points system. To receive a life sentence, a defendant must have a score of at least 363. Phillips received a 364.4, a number that defense attorneys argued was low enough to earn different sentencing.
The eight victim impact statements—from both family and friends—given at the trial were likely an important factor in the sentence.
“Mr. Phillips, by his decisions, weaponized a commercial vehicle,” Ezelle said at the sentencing.
Phillips’ defense says they will appeal Ezelle’s ruling.
Defense Argued Meth May Not Have Been a Factor in the Tractor-Trailer Crash
The defense attorneys didn’t fight some of the irrefutable facts of the case: Phillips had been driving the Kenworth G-600 semi-truck that struck and killed O’Callaghan and Jenkins, and he had both methamphetamines and Valium in his system at the time of the truck crash. What they argued against was that the drugs had impaired Phillips’ driving and subsequently caused the wreck.
A defense witness—Dr. Daniel Buffington—was brought in to help make the case that the amount of the prescription drugs in Phillips’ system was not unusual and that it fit with Phillips taking the drugs for medicinal reasons, though he did not have a prescription for the use of either.
David Stamey, the Assistant State Attorney, brought harsh criticism of Dr. Buffington, however, saying that he was a “show-me-the-money businessman/pharmacist” and that he was used by defense attorneys throughout Florida.
Dr. Buffington stated, while under oath, that he receives $400 per hour in payment for his services as an expert witness, and that he’d earned approximately $4,000 for his involvement in the case against Phillips.
State’s Expert Witness Suggests Truck Driver was Using Meth Recreationally before Big Rig Accident
Dr. Buffington’s claim that the level of drugs in Phillips’ system was normal was in sharp contrast to the testimony of Dr. Bruce Goldberger with the University of Florida, who was brought in as an expert witness by the state.
Dr. Goldberger is president of the American Board of Toxicology as well as the director of the forensics lab at the University of Florida. He said the level of methamphetamine in Phillips’ system was far from standard for a medicinal user.
“No. 1, Mr. Phillips ingested methamphetamine,” Dr. Goldberger began. “No. 2, the concentration of methamphetamine is inconsistent with therapeutic use but is consistent with abuse or recreational use of methamphetamine. The concentration is 10 or 20 times higher than therapeutic use.”
He went on to say that in his career he had seen people die from methamphetamine overdoses when they had lower levels of methamphetamines in their system than Phillips.
Witnesses Recalled Phillips Driving Erratically Before Naples Truck Crash
Multiple witnesses reported seeing Phillips driving in an unsafe manner before his semi-truck collided with the Toyota Corolla Jenkins was driving.
Max Baker was driving behind Phillips and said the big rig was speeding up and slowing down in an unusual way and swerving all over the road. He was worried enough by what he saw that he attempted to call 911.
“I was concerned for the driver for the other people, myself included, who were on the road,” Baker said in a statement. He wasn’t able to reach 911, however, due to poor cell reception in the area.
Among the witnesses was Jenkins own husband, Dan Jenkins, who was following Jenkins and O’Callaghan in a separate vehicle with the couple’s two-month-old daughter Ashley. He saw Phillips crash into his wife and her best friend and managed to swerve to avoid being hit as well. His SUV overturned, but, luckily, he and his daughter sustained only minor injuries.
“In one single second, my best friend, my wife…my entire world came crashing down,” Dan Jenkins said in his victim impact statement. In previous interviews after the accident, Jenkins had said that his daughter would “never really truly know her mother.”
Beth Dimodica was driving behind the Corolla and the SUV driven by the two Jenkins and witnessed the crash, which she said was preceded by the semi speeding and veering across the road. She saw Dan Jenkins crawling out of his SUV after it rolled.
“I saw him reach in and grab a baby carrier,” Dimodica recalled. “He ran across the street and said, ‘My wife’s in that car. We have to check her out’.”