ALEXANDRIA — A jury found a Texas man involved in a September fatal crash between a tractor-trailer and van not guilty of second-degree manslaughter and guilty of three misdemeanor charges Wednesday afternoon at the Hanson County courthouse.
Jason Ingram, 32, was found guilty of reckless driving, operating an oversize vehicle and driving without a commercial driver's license for his involvement in the Interstate 90 crash after which 52-year-old Johnnie Hines, of Sioux Falls, was pronounced dead.
"There's certainly not proof beyond a reasonable doubt that he's a homicidal driver," Ingram's attorney, Peter Wold, said in his closing argument Wednesday morning.
Between the three charges of which he was convicted, Ingram was given a combined one year and two months in suspended jail sentences and ordered to pay $1,000 in fines and $223.50 in court costs. He was ordered to be on good behavior for one year and was given credit for the two days he served in jail after his arrest. Reckless driving is a Class 1 misdemeanor, and operating an oversize vehicle and driving without a CDL are both Class 2 misdemeanors.
The jury began deliberating around 11:45 a.m. and reached a verdict at about 1:40 p.m.
"I didn't expect him to go to prison for years, but there should be some sort of punishment," said Hines' sister, Bridget Fish, before Ingram was sentenced.
Shortly before 12 p.m. on Sept. 6, 2019, Ingram and Hines were both westbound on I-90, about 2 miles east of Alexandria. Ingram was driving a Versatile 305 tractor and towing a hose trailer, heading from a farm in Viborg to Wolsey for his job with a waste management company.
Hines, the only occupant of a Dodge Caravan, ran into the back of Ingram's trailer and was pronounced dead at the scene. When the crash occurred, a reconstruction showed, Hines' vehicle was traveling about 60 mph faster than Ingram's, and there was no evidence Hines had tried to brake or swerve out of the way of the trailer.
The jury concluded that Ingram had violated the law by operating a vehicle wider than permissible on the highway without a CDL and had been reckless in doing so, but that those actions and evidence presented by the state didn't necessarily mean Ingram caused Hines' death.
"(Hines) should've seen this, coming down the road," Judge Chris Giles said prior to sentencing. " ... It appears to the court Mr. Hines was distracted."
Much of the defense's case, which was presented Wednesday morning, was centered on the possibility that Hines was distracted and could have avoided the crash. Hunter May, who worked for Hines' window-washing company and regularly rode with him between Sioux Falls and Mitchell, testified that Hines would often watch videos on his phone while driving the Dodge Caravan during those trips, keeping it on his lap and looking down at it.
"I do agree that if you weren't out there, this wouldn't have happened, but you were out there for a significant amount of time, and there weren't any other problems," Giles said, referencing the approximately one hour Ingram said he'd been on the interstate before the crash.
During his closing argument, Wold showed the jury a picture of a section of Interstate 90.
"You're going to miss a tractor there?" Wold asked. " ... It doesn't matter if it had no lights on it. If it was camouflaged, you could see it."
Wold said not enough evidence had been presented to prove that Ingram caused Hines' death or that, if he did, it was a reckless killing. No autopsy was done on Hines, and Wold said the state had no proof the crash had caused his death rather than, for example, a heart attack.
Hanson County State's Attorney Jim Davies called the heart attack argument smoke and mirrors and told the jury in his rebuttal to stick to the evidence, rather than speculating. He said Hines' phone being found on the dash of his van after the crash could reasonably be interpreted to mean that it was there before the crash, rather than under the dash where May testified he held the phone to watch videos while driving.
"There's not one shred of proof that Mr. Hines was not looking down the highway," Davies said.
Wold cited Tuesday's testimony from South Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Tori Gordon, who said during cross-examination that she didn't know how fast either vehicle had been traveling when the crash occurred or whether other witnesses at the scene had moved items in Hines' van, as one witness said Monday she had.
Wold said Gordon had arrested Ingram quickly at the scene of the crash and charged him with manslaughter and reckless driving within about 15 minutes of first speaking to him.
"Once you are accused, you are at a monumental disadvantage. You quickly become an underdog," Wold said to the jury. "That's what we have here ... the state and all of its resources against Jason Ingram."
Ingram testified during the trial about what he remembered from the day of the crash and his work experience that summer. He said while working on a farm in Wolsey, the crew he was working with ran out of hose, and he and a coworker went to Viborg, where they had left some equipment, to get more.
In Viborg, Ingram said, he checked the tractor, hooked it up to the hose cart and made sure the lights on the tractor and trailer were working. His boss sent him a GPS location for him to go to, and he began driving the tractor while his coworker drove another vehicle. Ingram said he was unaware there was a 40-mph minimum speed limit on the interstate, he thought it would be safest to drive on the interstate shoulder as much as possible and he was traveling between 28.6 and 30 mph, the maximum speed for his company's tractors.
"I'm sorry for what you lost. There's nothing that I can do that will change it, and I wish I could," Ingram told Bridget Fish and her husband, Ray Fish, before sentencing.