Charges dropped against driver in fatal accident

Charges were dropped against a 22-year-old Benton City man who crashed into two motorcyclists in West Richland, killing one rider and injuring the other.

Christopher C.J. Berry was charged in Benton County Superior Court in April with vehicular homicide and vehicular assault for the Feb. 12 crash on Kennedy Road.

Joel "Joe" Vance, 52, was thrown from his motorcycle after Berry's 2001 Volkswagen Passat crossed the center line and slammed into him, police and court documents said. Vance died at a Spokane hospital. His wife, Lorri, suffered a broken leg.

Berry was accused of driving 15 to 20 mph over the speed limit and had told West Richland police detectives that he either dozed off or turned to talk to his fiancee when he crossed the center line.

Prosecutors alleged Berry was driving with disregard for the safety of others at the time of the crash.

Disregard for the safety of others is defined in case law as being an aggravated kind of negligence or carelessness with evidence needed to show a conscious disregard of the dangers to others, according to Deputy Prosecutor Megan Bredeweg, who filed the motion and affidavit to dismiss charges against Berry.

Bredeweg wrote that the state believed the aggravated negligence in this case was Berry's speed, which he estimated to be 55 to 60 mph in a 40 mph zone, along with his drowsiness and crossing the centerline.

"The state understood this to be a difficult case from the outset, but believed that all the evidence in the state's possession resulted in probable cause to believe the defendant committed the crimes of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault," she wrote.

A defense expert hired to reconstruct the crash concluded that Berry was steering back toward his own lane when he struck Joe Vance and wasn't speeding at the time.

Bredeweg said prosecutors don't agree with the analysis that Berry didn't cross the centerline when he hit the Vances and said the state's theory is supported by damage or lack of damage to the motorcycles and car, documents said.

The defense expert, Richard Chapman, said he estimated Berry was traveling 34 mph if he took no action after the collision, which would put him under the posted 40 mph limit. If Berry had applied his brakes immediately upon impact, his speed could have been as high as 52 mph, documents said.

Chapman said it's not possible to apply the brakes instantaneously because human reaction time has to be figured in.

Chapman's analysis was provided to West Richland police, who performed their own speed analysis and determined Berry's speed to be 39.5 mph if he took no action, 54.02 mph if the rear tires were braking and 65.39 mph with full braking, documents said.

Full braking was not possible because the front driver's side tire was broken off and police investigators had less confidence in the second two numbers because those would have required an immediate action of the brakes, documents said.

"The (West Richland Police Department) also feels that there is a lack of evidence as to what happened to the defendant's vehicle after the collision, leading them to be unable to refute Mr. Chapman's conclusion about the speed of the vehicle," documents said. "There were no skid marks or other signs of braking located at the collision scene."

Based on the speed analysis, police officials didn't believe the case rose to the aggravated negligence needed to prove the vehicular homicide and vehicular assault charges, Bredeweg wrote.

"While the defendant was clearly negligent in crossing the centerline and causing the collision, the actions which the state is able to prove do not arise to the aggravated negligence needed to prove this case," she said.

Dismissal of charges is necessary because the state likely would not be able to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, documents said.