Trial begins for woman charged in mother's death

Photo By Rick Harris Melissa White looks on in court on Wednesday. White has been charged with vehicular homicide in connection with a January 2003 wreck that left Dora Chandley, White's mother who was a passenger in the vehicle, dead.

By Abby Morris-Frye
star staff

  The trial began Wednesday for a Unicoi County woman who has been charged with vehicular homicide in connection with a January 2003 wreck that left her mother dead.
  Melissa R. White, 33, of 109 Natalie Lane, Lot 5, Erwin, was indicted in September 2003 on the charge of vehicular homicide. The wreck, which left her mother, Dora Chandley, also of Erwin, dead, occurred on the afternoon of Jan. 11, 2003 on Siam Road in the area of East Side Baptist Church.
  According to police reports of the accident, there were actually two collisions that occurred in the accident. Capt. Rusty Verran, an accident reconstructionist with the Elizabethton Police Department, said at the time of the crash that the driver of a 1989 Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck made a right turn onto Siam Road off of U.S. Highway 19E heading north.
  "After making the right hand turn at the intersection, the vehicle traveled approximately 150 feet and ran off the right side of the road and struck a guardrail," Verran said, adding that after the truck struck the guardrail it returned to Siam Road and traveled another 150 feet before leaving the roadway again and striking a utility pole. "The passenger of the truck (later identified as Chandley) was pronounced dead at the scene by the coroner. The driver was transported to the Johnson City Medical Center."
  Jury selection began in the trial at approximately 9:30 a.m. and continued until the jury was seated shortly before noon. When jurors returned from lunch, the trial began with opening statements from Assistant District Attorney Ken Baldwin and defense attorney David Crockett.
  Baldwin told members of the jury that they could not let their sympathy for the victim in the loss of her mother influence their verdict or their interpretation of the law. "This is a tough case," he said. "It's not like killing a stranger."
  He also told the jury they would hear testimony from witnesses who saw the crash occur. "She made no attempt to stop, hit her brakes or get back onto the road (prior to striking the utility pole)," he said, adding that several people who witnessed the wreck stopped and tried to help White and Chandley. "She didn't seem to be upset. She never asked about the condition of her mother. She was talking but didn't seem to be aware of the injury to her arm, and she had a terrible fracture to her arm, and she wasn't complaining of any pain."
  Baldwin also told members of the jury that in order to convict someone of vehicular homicide, the state must prove that the driver's ability to operate the vehicle was impaired by the use of drugs or alcohol and that the victim died as a proximate result of the accident. The state contends that White was on prescription medication and that the level of the medication impaired her ability to drive.
  Crockett told members of the jury that while his client is on prescription medication, the use of that prescription medication does not impair her ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.
  Crockett said White suffers from diabetes, anorexia and ruptured disks in her back. Because of those ailments, he said, she has been taking prescribed doses of Soma, Lortab and Valium for more than a decade. "Because of these conditions she is on a regular regimen of medication," he said.
  Crockett told members of the jury that he would present witnesses who would testify that the medication White took had never affected her driving before.
  To counter the description of the accident offered by the prosecution, Crockett said that the defense's position is that, after the initial impact with the guardrail, White was knocked unconscious.
  "A Dr. Pepper was sitting on the seat, and as she started around the sharp curve, it started to fall and she reached for it," Crockett said. "When she reached for it, she accidentally pulled her vehicle off the roadway." After the vehicle left the roadway, it collided with the guardrail. It was at that time, Crockett said, that White was knocked out and no longer in control of the vehicle, which then traveled back onto the roadway before exiting again and striking the utility pole.
  "Is it not more reasonable to believe that a woman was knocked unconscious and the vehicle continued along the road?" Crockett asked the jury.
  During testimony, some witnesses who saw the accident said that, after the crash, they stopped their vehicles and tried to help the two women inside the truck. Several of the witnesses described White as being in a "non-responsive" state when they tried to speak to her and that she apparently did not realize the extent of her injuries.
  Clinton Hughes, who had been traveling in the vehicle behind the truck driven by White, said that when White did not respond to his questions, he decided to check on Chandley. "I went and checked on the passenger, and when I didn't find a pulse I knew the passenger was in trouble," he said.
  Patty Russell was in another vehicle traveling behind White at the time of the collision. She also tried to check on the two women. "I asked her if she was OK and she was mumbling," Russell said. "She was reaching in the floor and mumbling about something being in the floor but I looked and there was nothing there."
  In cross examination, Crockett showed Russell a photograph taken of the passenger side of the truck and asked her if she saw a Dr. Pepper can in the passenger side floorboard. Russell said she did see the can and pointed to it in the photograph.
  During witness testimony, the state presented several photographs of the accident scene and the accident itself as evidence. As White looked through the photographs in court, she began to cry and wiped away tears with a tissue.
  The prosecution also called several medical witnesses to the stand to testify about White's condition at the scene of the wreck and the injuries she sustained.
  Dr. Carlos Floresguera, a physician and trauma expert from the Johnson City Medical Center, testified that he treated White at the JCMC emergency room following the accident. He said he performed surgery on White's arm to mend a compound fracture. He also said physicians found no head injury that would indicate she had received trauma to the head or had been knocked out.
  Floresguera said White was a patient at the hospital from Jan. 11 to Jan. 15, 2003 and her medical records from that stay indicated that at no time had she complained of a head injury. He also said he asked her about the wreck and she told him she remembered everything. He also asked her if she had lost consciousness and she said she had not. "If she remembers the accident then she did not lose consciousness," he said.
  Medical records from her stay also indicated that she did not tell hospital personnel that she was taking the prescription medication Soma, Lortab or Valium, and the only medication she told physicians she had been prescribed was Depo Provera, a birth control medication, Floresguera said.
  Emergency medical personnel who responded to the scene of the crash were also called to the stand.
  Jeff Francisco, a paramedic who has been employed with the Carter County Rescue Squad for 12 years, said he was the first paramedic on the scene and that he performed the initial exam on White. He said the first injury he noticed was the compound fracture of her arm and that. even though he checked her for a head injury, no such injury was apparent.
  He also testified concerning White's condition when he arrived on the scene. "She was speaking with very slurred speech and speaking very slowly," he said, adding that she was not showing pain and did not appear to be aware of her injuries.
  Both Francisco and fellow CCRS paramedic Jason Davenport, who also testified, said White appeared drowsy and her eyes were only half-way open.
  Sharon Silvers, who works with forensic toxicology and drug chemistry at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Crime Laboratory in Knoxville, also testified as to the presence of drugs in White's blood stream. Blood samples from White were acquired at the JCMC approximately one hour and 14 minutes after the accident and were sent to the TBI Crime Lab for analysis.
  Silvers said that Carisoprodol (Soma), Diazepam (Valium) and Dihydrocodeinone (Lortab) were found in White's system. She also said that Meprobamate, a metabolite breakdown product of Carisoprodol, and Nordiazepam, a metabolite breakdown chemical for Diazepam, were also in White's blood stream and could have affected her body's function. "The metabolites of these substances are active; they are not inactive, and they have affects on the body as well," she said.
  Dr. Ken Ferslew, an expert in pharmacology and forensic toxicology who has been a professor at East Tennessee State University for 23 years, testified that while the prescription medications in White's system were all at what are deemed "therapeutic levels" (meaning that the drug is being taken at the proper dosage), the combination of the drugs could have affected White's ability to drive.
  According to Ferslew, Soma, Lortab and Valium all work by suppressing portions of the central nervous system (CNS), and the combination of medications could lead to a "severe psycho-motor impairment." He said that since the three medications all work on different receptors of the CNS, the drugs could have a compounded effect on the CNS.
  Ferslew said that, in his opinion, "the drugs contributed to her misoperation of that vehicle."
  The prosecution will continue to present its case today as testimony continues. The trial is also expected to conclude today.
  Crockett said on Wednesday that White will take the stand in her own defense.