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Aggravated manslaughter case goes to circuit court
Friday, August 31, 2012
By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer
A felony charge against a Martinsville man in connection with a March 24 collision in which a Callands woman died was advanced to circuit court Thursday.
Following a nearly three-hour preliminary hearing, Martinsville General District Court Judge Edwin Gendron Jr. certified the felony count of aggravated manslaughter based on driving under the influence (DUI) against James Benjamin Hairston, 32, of Martinsville.
Melissa Renee Jackson, 38, of Callands, was the passenger in a white 1999 Chrysler 300 M driven by Hairston, according to the accident report.
Jackson was pronounced dead at the scene after the Chrysler 300 she had recently bought skidded off the right side of East Church Street, onto the sidewalk and through a grassy area before striking a utility pole, according to testimony.
Jackson died from multiple blunt force injuries, according to Medical Examiner Paul Benson, who testified that he conducted an external exam, which included X-rays, on her body. Internal exams are not required in cases where the injuries are clearly apparent, he said.
Jackson “had typical injuries” of others who died in high-speed impacts, Benson said. He defined high speeds as 50 to 90 miles per hour.
In addition to an arm fracture, bruising and other injuries, Benson testified that Jackson’s head “was actually displaced from the top of her spinal column.”
Brittany Short, the first witness called by Martinsville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joan Ziglar, testified that she was driving out of Martinsville toward Danville between 11 p.m. and midnight on March 24 when she saw the crash occur.
She said the roads were “a little wet,” but it was not raining at the time of the crash.
Rounding a corner near the area of Urgent Care, Short said, “I saw a white vehicle sliding to the right side of the road.” The vehicle continued off the road, onto the sidewalk and “wrapped around” a utility pole, she added.
Short recalled hearing a “pop” as the light busted, then she pulled over and called 911 to report the crash.
As she got to the vehicle, Short said she saw the driver who had “blood coming from his head.” He also had “trouble responding to verbal cues” as other people who gathered at the scene told him to turn off the ignition.
The man allegedly repeated, “‘Don’t call the cops. Don’t call the cops,’” Short said, adding that she could not identify the man.
Short testified that some of those who arrived before emergency workers had tried to open the driver’s side door to help the driver get out, and they busted out a window that had shattered on impact.
That was when Short said she saw another person in the car. The person appeared to be on the passenger side in the back seat and was not moving, she said.
Emergency workers got Hairston out of the vehicle, and he was taken to Memorial Hospital of Martinsville for treatment of his head wound and complaints of chest and leg pain. His right leg was lodged between the seat and the console, according to testimony.
Hairston was taken to a trauma center in Roanoke for further treatment, according to testimony.
Thomas Bullock, a probation and parole officer, testified that he supervises Hairston’s probation and parole in connection with an earlier incident. He did not elaborate.
However, while Hairston was in a Roanoke hospital, he allegedly called Bullock to tell him about the accident and asked Bullock for advice.
Bullock said he asked Hairston if he’d been drinking, “and he said ‘yes.’” Hairston said he did not recall how much alcohol he had consumed, but it was more “than two beers,” Bullock said he was told.
Martinsville Police Officer Ben Peters, the first officer at the scene, said he found an open container of beer in the Chrysler. He also smelled alcohol.
“I could tell the odor was coming off his (Hairston’s) breath as he was talking to me,” Peters testified.
Other law enforcement officers, another witness, rescue personnel, a nurse from the hospital and forensic toxicologist Dr. David Burrows also testified.
Burrows said Hairston’s blood alcohol content was .20. Also, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, an ingredient in marijuana), was found. Burrows noted the THC content was 0.05.
The judge said he considered that in the manslaughter charge, although Hairston was not charged with a drug violation, Ziglar said.
In addition to the manslaughter charge, Hairston was charged with driving under the influence, reckless driving and driving suspended in connection with the incident.
Gendron found him guilty of the DUI charge and sentenced him to a $650 fine, with $350 suspended; 90 days in jail with 80 days suspended; his driver’s license suspended for one-year; and 12 months good behavior.
Hairston also was found guilty of driving suspended and given a $500 fine, 180 days in jail with 90 suspended, his driver’s license suspended for 90 days and 12 months good behavior.
Hairston wore a gray and white striped inmate suit and was seated beside his attorney, public defender Christine Slate, during Thursday’s hearing.