ALEXANDRIA -- A Hanson County trial began Monday with opening statements from counsel and testimony from those who saw Johnnie Hines at the scene where he was pronounced dead Sept. 6.
Jason Ingram, 32, of Kempner, Texas, is charged with second-degree manslaughter, a Class 4 felony, as well as three misdemeanor traffic offenses, in connection with the rear-end crash of a minivan, driven by 52-year-old Hines, of Sioux Falls, into a hose trailer pulled by a tractor driven by Ingram.
Jury selection began Monday morning, and testimony given in the afternoon included witnesses' observations of circumstances surrounding the crash. Before the end of the week, jurors will be asked to take that information into account and determine whether Ingram drove in a reckless manner that caused Hines' death.
"There's nothing pleasant about why we're here, folks, for either side," Hanson County State's Attorney Jim Davies said in his opening statement. "... If this case was a slam dunk one way or the other, one of us would not be here."
Shortly before noon on Sept. 6, according to court documents and Monday's testimony, a Dodge Caravan driven by Hines rear-ended a hose trailer pulled by a Versatile 305 tractor, which Ingram was allegedly driving west on Interstate 90, about 2 miles east of Alexandria.
Hines’ minivan reportedly sustained significant front-end damage in the crash. Hines, who was not wearing a seat belt, was pronounced dead at the scene. Documents charging Ingram, who was not injured in the crash, with second-degree manslaughter and reckless driving were filed Sept. 9. He was released from jail Sept. 16 on a $4,000 cash bond.
Ingram's attorney, Peter Wold, said Monday that on the day of the crash, Ingram and others were working at a farm in Wessington, and Ingram, as part of his job with Boehnke Waste Handling, a Minnesota-based company, was in the process of delivering more hose to the farm when the crash occurred.
Wold said Ingram had seen other tractors on the interstate and that there were no signs prohibiting slow-moving vehicles where Ingram entered the interstate. He also estimated that, while there are signs along I-90 in South Dakota posting minimum and maximum speed limits of 40 and 80 mph, there might be one such sign between Sioux Falls and Mitchell.
"He drove with the utmost caution consistently," Wold said.
In October, Ingram was additionally charged with operating an oversized vehicle and driving without a commercial driver’s license, both of which are Class 2 misdemeanors. He pleaded not guilty to all four charges on Oct. 16.
Though vehicle speeds at the time of the crash have not been released, South Dakota law does not allow vehicles to travel slower than 40 mph -- faster than the maximum speed of a typical tractor with or without a trailer attached -- on the interstate, where the speed limit is 80 mph, without a permit from the South Dakota Department of Transportation.
Wold said an investigation by the South Dakota Highway Patrol concluded that simply because Ingram was not traveling 40 mph, he was at fault in the crash. He said he intends to prove throughout the course of the trial that both the tractor and trailer had visible lights on them and that Hines was traveling 5 to 10 miles over the speed limit and did not attempt to brake or swerve away from the trailer.
Wold said that, according to an employee of Hines' window cleaning business who frequently rode along with Hines for business, Hines frequently watched videos on his phone while driving along the interstate.
Six witnesses testified Monday. Among them were Darin Ford, who was driving a truck near the vehicles involved when the crash occurred, and LeNora Giles, who stopped at the scene of the crash and called 911.
Giles said the front of the van was destroyed when she arrived at the scene, and Ford, who said the front of the van appeared to jump two feet in the air before slamming into the ground, said the impact was "the most violent hit I've ever seen in my life."
Giles, deputy coroner Bart Fredericksen and Hanson County Deputy Thomas Brown all testified that Hines appeared to be dead at the scene. Fredericksen said Hines was taken to Mitchell after the crash and that no autopsy was performed.
Ingram’s trial is scheduled to last through Wednesday at the Hanson County Courthouse.
Exhibit lists filed two weeks ago indicate both sides intend to present photos of the crash scene and a reconstruction, as well as unspecified information related to one or more phones.
If the jury finds Ingram guilty of second-degree manslaughter, he could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
Second-degree manslaughter differs from first-degree manslaughter in that, while both are homicides that occur unnecessarily or without premeditation, second-degree manslaughter does not occur in a heat of passion, while committing a felony, with a dangerous weapon or while trying to stop another person from committing a crime.