An East Greenville man remained stone-faced as a jury convicted him of charges he drove drunk and caused a crash that claimed the life of his friend, who was a passenger in the vehicle.
Howard Arthur Christy II, 24, of the 500 block of Blaker Drive, was convicted by a Montgomery County jury on Thursday, March 6, of charges of homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence of alcohol, accidents involving death while not properly licensed, DUI and possession of a small amount of marijuana in connection with the April 29, 2012, one-vehicle crash in the 200 block of Paper Mill Road in Douglass (Mont.) that claimed the life of Etinye Usoro, 21, also of East Greenville.
The jury deliberated about an hour before reaching its verdict after a four-day trial.
“These cases are always tragic. You have somebody who sets out to never do anything bad but when you drink and drive you put yourself, you put your friends and you put other motorists at risk of being seriously injured or killed. It’s just a recipe for disaster,” said Assistant District Attorney Matthew Quigg, who prosecuted Christy.
Judge Steven T. O’Neill deferred sentencing until later this year so that court officials can complete a background investigation of Christy, which will include drug and alcohol evaluations. Christy remains free on bail pending sentencing with the conditions that he not drive or consume alcohol.
Quigg tried to revoke Christy’s bail, arguing the risk to flee was greater now that Christy faces a mandatory minimum sentence of three years in prison on the vehicular homicide while DUI charge. But defense lawyer Francis Recchuitti argued Christy has shown up for all court proceedings, has a job and is not a risk to flee.
“He’s been suffering and grieving the death of his friend since day one. He’s upset. It’s a tragedy,” Recchuitti said.
Quigg, who was assisted by co-prosecutor Stewart Ryan, intends to seek at least the mandatory minimum sentence of three years imprisonment against Christy.
“It’s important because it sends a message to the community that you can’t go out and drink and drive. If you go out and drink and drive and somebody dies as a result, even though that’s not what you intended to happen, there are serious consequences for it,” Quigg said. “Hopefully people will think twice so that we don’t have more tragedies like this.”
Usoro’s brother and sister were in court for the verdict. Usoro’s mother, who wept quietly at times during trial testimony, had attended several other days of the trial.
“This verdict won’t bring their brother back but it gives them some measure of closure to know that the person who caused their brother’s death was found guilty by a jury of his peers,” said Quigg, who met with the victim’s family after the verdict.
During the trial, Christy testified he never learned how to drive and didn’t have a license and that he couldn’t recall if he was driving Usoro’s Pontiac Sunbird at the time of the early morning crash, which occurred after the two friends had spent a few hours drinking a half bottle of vodka mixed with cranberry juice as they drove throughout rural New Hanover.
Authorities who reconstructed the crash alleged the vehicle, which had been traveling eastbound on Paper Mill Road, left the roadway approaching a bridge crossing the Perkiomen Creek, traveled 63 feet across a grassy area, drove off the side of the bridge retaining wall and traveled 44 feet in the air before flipping onto its roof and landing upside-down in about three-to-four-feet of water.
There were no eyewitnesses to the crash, which wasn’t discovered for about 11 hours.
“The key piece of evidence was the first responders, the people that went into the cold water and put their own safety at risk in order to try to rescue Etinye Usoro and were able to verify he was still strapped in, seat belted in the passenger seat…so there could be no doubt as to who was driving the car,” Quigg said.
Christy was able to free himself from a seatbelt and find an air pocket in the car, according to authorities. Usoro was unable to free himself and remained underwater, according to the criminal complaint.
Christy and Usoro, testimony revealed, were trapped in the partially submerged car, with temperatures outside hovering around freezing, until 10:45 a.m. when a passer-by made a heroic effort and pulled Christy from the vehicle and summoned rescue crews.
Rescue crews entered the water and were able to extract Usoro. While removing Usoro from the vehicle, a partially full bottle of vodka floated from the car, testimony revealed.
An autopsy determined Usoro died from drowning.
A blood test, nearly 12 hours after the crash, determined Christy had a blood-alcohol content of 0.12 percent, according to court papers. The legal blood-alcohol content for driving is 0.08 percent.
While Recchuitti suggested the crash could have occurred when the driver tried to avoid hitting a wild animal crossing the road, detectives testified there was no evidence of abrupt swerving to suggest that scenario.
Recchuitti also implied a third, unknown person might have been in the vehicle and that person could have been the driver. However, when questioned by Quigg, Christy testified he doesn’t remember a third person ever being in the car.
When police searched Christy’s pants after the crash they located a bag containing “a green leafy substance consistent with marijuana in one of the pockets,” according to the arrest affidavit.
Follow Carl Hessler Jr. on Twitter @MontcoCourtNews