Jury still out on homicide trial


Photo By Rick Harris
Melissa White cries on the witness stand Thursday afternoon as she describes what happened on the day that her mother, Dora Chandley, died in a car wreck in which White was the driver. The jury is expected to deliver a verdict today.

  By Abby Morris-Frye
star staff
amorris@starhq.com
  The fate of an Erwin woman charged with vehicular homicide in the 2003 death of her mother now rests in the hands of a jury of her peers.
  The prosecution rested its case against Melissa White, 33, 109 Natalie Lane, Lot 5, Erwin, Thursday morning following testimony by Elizabethton Police Department Sgt. Jack Ramsey, an accident reconstruction specialist.
  As part of the case, Assistant District Attorney General Ken Baldwin asked Judge Robert Cupp to allow the jury to visit the crash scene on Siam Road to better enable them to understand the roadway. Cupp allowed the jury to visit the site, and after the brief trip was finished, the state rested its case against White.
  The state contended that on the day of the crash which left White's mother, Dora Chandley, dead, White's ability to operate a motor vehicle was impaired by her use of prescription medication -- specifically Soma, Lortab and Valium which were prescribed to White by her medical care provider.
  However, during its case, the defense presented an alternate theory of the crash stating that White was not impaired that day but was knocked unconscious by the initial impact with the guardrail and was not in control of the vehicle from the time it struck the guardrail until final impact with the utility pole.
  To present this theory of the case, defense attorney David Crockett called several witnesses to the stand, including White's father, her maternal grandmother, one of her aunts and a cousin. Crockett asked White's relatives to testify about White's medication, how long she had been taking it, and if they had ever known her driving to be affected by her use of medication.
  All of White's relatives testified that not only did White's medication not affect her driving, but that White is a safe driver. Members of the family also testified that White and her mother were very close. "They were real close, like best friends," said Martha Barnes, White's aunt and the sister of Chandley. "Where you'd see one, you'd see the other."
  As the last witness to testify, White took the stand in her own defense, telling members of the jury that she was knocked unconscious after striking the guardrail and that she did not remember anything from that time until she regained consciousness in the truck after hitting the utility pole.
  White cried on the stand as she told the jury about the wreck and finding out in the hospital that her mother had not survived the crash.
  While under cross examination by Baldwin, White's driving skills came under question again. Baldwin asked White if she had ever been involved in a motor vehicle accident before. She said she had not. Baldwin then produced accident reports from four separate traffic accidents involving White as a driver that occurred between 2000 and 2003 prior to the fatal car crash on Jan. 11, 2003 that killed Chandley.
  Afterward, Cupp sent the jury out of the court room to consider the issue of the perjured testimony. The wrecks themselves are not admissible as evidence into the trial because the rules of law state that prior bad acts cannot be used as evidence because of the possibility of prejudicing the jury. However, Cupp ruled that because White had perjured herself on the stand by saying that she had never been in an accident when in fact she had, the state was allowed to point out the accidents as a means of attacking the witnesses credibility. However, he said specific details about how the wrecks occurred would not be allowed.
  Once the jury returned to the court room, White apologized to the jurors about lying under oath. "I'm sorry that I misled anyone but when he asked me about the wrecks I just panicked because I was afraid that you all would hold it against me," she said.
  Baldwin then asked White why she panicked at that time knowing that her defense counsel was going to focus on what a safe driver she was. She replied that the only accident that has been on her mind has been the one that killed her mother.
  Crockett told the court that he had no prior knowledge of the four previous wrecks involving White and that the first time he had heard of them was in court on Thursday. "Why didn't you tell me that you had these accidents?" he asked White while she was still on the stand. "I'm on your side."
  After White's testimony, the defense rested and both Baldwin and Crockett made their closing arguments to the jury.
  Jurors began deliberation at approximately 7:45 p.m. Thursday until 9:35 p.m. when deliberation was suspended. The jury will reconvene in court at 9 a.m. today to conclude deliberation and deliver a verdict.