Trial begins for man charged in deathThe widow of a local man killed by an allegedly texting driver told a jury Tuesday that a visual reminder of the accident is always painfully nearby. The accident occurred so close to the family’s home that Jon Christensen’s body ended up in the family’s driveway. “I can see the site of the accident from my window,” said Christensen’s widow, Janean.
By: Austin Kaus, The Daily Republic
ALEXANDRIA — The widow of a local man killed by an allegedly texting driver told a jury Tuesday that a visual reminder of the accident is always painfully nearby.
The accident occurred so close to the family’s home that Jon Christensen’s body ended up in the family’s driveway.
“I can see the site of the accident from my window,” said Christensen’s widow, Janean.
With tears in her eyes, she told the jury that the family had celebrated her son’s 13th birthday in Mitchell just prior to the accident.
Justin Iburg, 20, of Fulton, has been charged with second-degree manslaughter and reckless driving. He earlier pleaded not guilty to both charges involved with the death of Christensen, 44. Iburg’s trial began Tuesday at the Hanson County Courthouse.
Christensen was stopped on his motorcycle behind two other vehicles at a state Highway 38 construction site a few miles east of Mitchell on Sept. 20 when he was hit from behind by a pickup driven by Iburg.
Initial reports from the South Dakota Highway Patrol said Iburg was distracted by his cell phone just prior to the accident.
Tuesday, road construction worker Brian Mortimore testified that Iburg would not answer a post-accident question about whether or not Iburg saw construction signs or workers before hitting Christensen.
“All he said was ‘I got a phone call,’ ” testified Mortimore, who was holding a stop sign at the construction site when the accident happened.
Mortimore, a Parkston resident who spends his winters in Texas, testified that he tried to get Iburg’s attention as the vehicle traveled toward the area where three vehicles, including Christensen’s, were stopped.
“It still didn’t slow down, so I knew it was going to run into the back of Mr. Christensen and I yelled at him to get out of the way or jump off his motorcycle,” Mortimore said. “By that time, it was too late.”
Mortimore said Christensen’s body hit his sign as it flew off the motorcycle after the impact.
“John was probably level to my shoulders as he went by me,” Mortimore said.
Toby Russell, investigator for the Mitchell Department of Public Safety, said a search of Iburg’s phone revealed a text message was received and read at 7:06 p.m. Trooper Caleb Walters, of the South Dakota Highway Patrol, said he received a call about the accident at 7:08 p.m.
Pictures shown by Hanson County State’s Attorney Jim Davies showed various angles of the accident scene, including the gouge marks left in the highway by Christensen’s motorcycle at the time of impact and the shattered visor of his motorcycle helmet.
Walters testified that he was in charge of the accident investigation. After Walters told Iburg’s lawyer, Jerry Pollard, of Yankton, that a camera in his patrol vehicle captured his trip to the accident scene, Pollard spoke briefly with Judge Sean O’Brien. When the jury was dismissed for a recess, Pollard called for a mistrial, saying he should have had access to the video.
O’Brien denied the motion. It was ordered that Pollard would be provided with the video Tuesday evening. Davies said he was unaware until Walters’ testimony that the video existed.
Doug Degen, of Mitchell, and Rachael Nichols, of Canova, were occupants in another vehicle involved in the accident. Nichols said she never saw the accident coming, but Degen, who testified he knew both Christensen and Iburg personally, said he saw Iburg’s pickup coming up quickly on the vehicles.
“You could tell it wasn’t going to get stopped,” Degen said. “It pushed us all together like an accordion.”
Second-degree manslaughter is a Class 4 felony punishable by a maximum of 10 years in the penitentiary and a $20,000 fine. Reckless driving is a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of one year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
There is no law specifically banning texting while driving in South Dakota, although the Legislature considered adopting one in recent weeks. Janean Christensen testified in favor of the legislation.
Monday, the day before Iburg’s trial began, a texting-while-driving ban won approval in the North Dakota Senate. The bill is headed back to the North Dakota House for consideration of the Senate’s changes.