Jurors visit fatal crash site in West Richland

Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldApril 25, 2014 

A cross with stuffed animals and flowers sits on Van Giesen Street in Richland near the intersection where Steven Covert of West Richland was killed in a June 2013 accident when a car driven by Natalie Lincoln of Richland crossed into his lane.

GEOFF FOLSOM — Tri-City Herald

Jurors took a rare field trip Friday to the site of a fatal June accident.

The 14-member panel stood on the southwest corner of Van Giesen Street and Kingston Road. They could see a memorial made of a small wooden cross surrounded by stuffed animals and flowers not far from where Steven S. Covert, 50, of West Richland, was killed.

Natalie Michelle Lincoln, 33, of Richland, is charged with vehicular homicide for allegedly being under the influence of the muscle relaxer baclofen when she crossed the center line and hit Covert's car, spinning him into another car.

Friday, the Benton County jurors could see the snaking curve heading to the Yakima River bridge crossing into West Richland, and the center turn lane and westbound lane that Lincoln crossed into with her 1998 Ford Taurus. Covert and his teenage son were in a 2000 Pontiac Grand Am.

Just before the bridge is a diamond-shaped yellow sign warning drivers that the speed limit drops to 30 mph from 40 mph when you get into West Richland. Lincoln told investigators she was checking her cruise control when she caused the wreck.

Friday, Richland police officers directed traffic along Van Giesen while Judge Cameron Mitchell and defense attorneys and prosecutors stood on the opposite side of Kingston from the jurors.

Within a few minutes, the jury was back inside two vans heading to the Benton County Justice Center.

Mitchell told jurors before they left for the accident site that they weren't going to see evidence, and asked them not to ask questions or take notes. They were merely going to get a better understanding of the scene.

Before the trip, testimony from a Richland police officer was cut short after Mitchell agreed with defense attorney Scott Johnson's objection that prosecutors had not established a sufficient basis for Officer Luke Flohr to testify as a drug recognition expert.

Flohr performed a drug recognition test on Lincoln after she was taken to Kadlec Regional Medical Center. The tests showed she had horizontal gaze nystagmus, which prosecutors say is an indicator she was driving impaired.

Flohr testified that he graduated from a drug recognition expert school in 2004, but could only recall having passed 13 to 15 of the required modules of instruction. Johnson said such experts are now required to pass 30 modules.

Mitchell asked the prosecution to find better documentation of Flohr's studies before testimony resumes Thursday.

Flohr's testimony could be key to the prosecution trying to show that Lincoln was under the influence of the muscle relaxer, which can cause nystagmus.

Lincoln admitted to investigators that she took the prescription drug the morning of the accident.

She also told police that she took the stimulant adderall and antidepressant citalopram that day, but only baclofen showed up in her blood test.

The defense has argued that the morphine she was given at the hospital after the accident could have caused the eye condition, but prosecution witnesses have said the painkiller doesn't cause the eye jerking.

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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