Driver Was Texting, Had Smoked Marijuana Prior to Fatal Crash, Police Say
Justin Jackson, 18, was arraigned in District Court 38-1-19 on Thursday afternoon.
An 18-year-old Spring-Ford High School student was arraigned today on charges resulting from a fatal March 4 crash on Lewis Road in Royersford that killed Merinda Thompson, a Royersford mother of two.
Magisterial District Judge Walter Gadzicki detailed the charges against Justin Jackson, a Pottstown resident, during a brief court hearing.
The charges include two felony charges and multiple misdemeanor charges.
The felony charges, homicide by vehicle and homicide by vehicle while under the influence of a controlled substance, directly resulted from Thompson's death.
The misdemeanor charges include driving under the influence of a controlled substance, reckless driving, possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, texting while driving, careless driving and reckless driving.
Jackson is also charged with unsworn falsification to authorities. First Assistant District Attorney Kevin Steele said during the arraignment that Jackson lied to the police on a statement he gave last week.
Steele told the court that the District Attorney's office was requesting a high bail due to the seriousness of the charges. Jackson had shown, Steele said, that he was "a danger to other people" because just prior to the accident, a witness had to swerve to avoid Jackson driving erratically. Steele also expressed the DA's concern that Jackson could potentially be a flight risk.
Jackson currently lives in Pottstown but was attending Spring-Ford High School. He moved from Linfield to Pottstown six months ago, according to his attorney, following his parents' divorce.
According to the affidavit of probable cause filed by authorities, Jackson was driving northbound on North Lewis Road the afternoon of March 4 when he lost control of his car and struck Merinda Thompson.
Thompson was jogging in a northbound direction on the southbound shoulder of North Lewis Road, jogging against traffic, according to the affidavit.
Police say that Jackson was impaired, distracted and driving recklessly at the time of the accident. His car, going northbound, travelled to the left across the southbound lane and off onto the southbound shoulder.
He struck Thompson from behind with the driver's side of his car and then struck a utility pole, the affidavit says. The crash caused the car to rotate and come to a stop facing southbound.
Thompson was pronounced dead at the scene by Friendship Ambulance medical staff, according to the affidavit.
Jackson was taken to Paoli Hospital following the accident because he was complaining of head and abdominal pain. While there, blood was drawn for a toxicology test.
Jackson's car was searched after a search warrant was issued on March 8, and police said in the affidavit that they recovered a glass pipe and a container of suspected marijuana.
Police also obtained a search warrant for Jackson's cell phone. According to the affidavit, chat messages were exchanged between Jackson and another number from 2:23 p.m. to 2:41 p.m. At 2:44 p.m. Jackson placed an unanswered call to a contact labeled "Dad". The 9-1-1 call to Montgomery County Emergency Dispatch was received at 2:45 p.m.
Two witnesses also gave statements to police that are detailed in the affidavit.
One witness, another driver, told police he had seen a woman jogging on the shoulder of Lewis Road. He was able to pass her without having to move away from her or adjust his steering. He then saw a green compact car traveling northbound in the southbound lane of Lewis Road.
The witness stated he swerved to avoid the car, but the driver of the green car "took no action to avoid him and...continued along in a straight path." He also told police that he saw the green car strike the telephone pole but did not see it strike the pedestrian.
A second witness, a 17-year-old female, told police that she had seen Jackson operating his car after school the day of the crash. According to the affidavit, she witnessed Jackson driving his car at a "high rate of speed" on Royersford Road.
Jackson was interviewed by police on March 15, according to the affidavit. He admitted to being the driver of the car that struck Thompson and told police that he had problems with his exhaust system and his front axle alignment. Jackson told police "If you are driving, the car will veer right exponentially."
Jackson told police he had been texting prior to the crash but not at the time of the crash. He also said he tried to call his father twice following the accident, both of which were unanswered, and he called a friend.
Jackson said he was unsure of how the accident occurred. He told police that he was turning his radio off which may have distracted him for a brief period, and that he was driving 45-50 MPH.
Jackson admitted to smoking marijuana but told police he had not smoked marijuana for a week.
On March 20, according to the criminal complaint, a medical laboratory analysis of Jackson’s blood indicated that he was likely to have consumed THC―the active ingredient in marijuana―within one to two hours prior to the crash and any impairment noted by authorities at the time of the crash could reasonably be attributed to the level of THC in the blood sample.
Police said in the affidavit that they believe Jackson "operated his vehicle on a roadway while under the influence of Marijuana, in [a] reckless and careless manner, which resulted in the death of Merinda Thompson."
At the conclusion of the arraignment, Jackson's defense attorney, Frank Genovese, argued for a reasonable bail amount because Jackson is a first-time offender and because he is not a flight risk.
Gadzicki set Jackson's bail at $100,000 with 10 percent ($10,000) allowed. As a condition of the bail agreement, Jackson may not operate a motor vehicle and was required to surrender his driver's license.
Speaking outside the court following the hearing, Genovese said Jackson's family planned to post bail today.
"[Jackson]'s very upset by this, it's a tragic situation. He's been going to some grief counseling to deal with the gravity of the situation. He didn't go out that night looking to hurt anyone or, God forbid, kill anyone," Genovese told reporters.
The next step in the legal process is a preliminary hearing, scheduled for April 3, 2013 at 8:45 a.m. in Gadzicki's court.
Jackson faces at least a three-year mandatory minimum sentence on the charge of homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, according to Pennsylvania law.