Officer held on all charges
“At 101 mph, this accident is happening?” Lycoming County District Attorney Eric R. Linhardt asked.
“Yes, it is,” answered state police Cpl. Sean Batterson during a preliminary hearing Friday for city Patrolman Jonathan Deprenda.
Deprenda, 32, was held for court on vehicular homicide, involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and summary traffic charges stemming from a Jan. 12 incident when he was responding to assist another city officer in a pursuit when his car collided with a car driven by James David Robinson, 42, of the city, resulting in Robinson’s death after it caught fire.
Batterson and state police Cpl. Larue Stelene, the lead investigator, were the prosecution’s only witnesses at the hearing, after which District Judge Allen P. Page III held all charges for Lycoming County Court arraignment.
Air bag analysis and reconstruction of the scene determined Deprenda traveled about 70 mph over the posted speed limit of 35 and struck Robinson’s car going 88 mph.
Robinson still was breathing inside the burning car, according to the autopsy report.
Deprenda tried to retrieve a fire extinguisher in the cruiser, but none was available, Stelene said.
Attorney Michael Dinges said his officer/client was in a car not regulated by state law regarding speed limit or direction of travel. Also, had Robinson not turned into the path of the oncoming cruiser without his signal on, Dinges said, the accident wouldn’t have happened.
Batterson acknowledged Robinson failed to yield the right-of-way to the oncoming police car. Motorists are required to pull over to the curb and stop to allow emergency vehicles to pass, according to the state vehicle code.
Linhardt said officers can exceed maximum speed limits as long as the driver doesn’t endanger life or property. At a speed of 100 mph, the officer traveled 240 feet before applying the brakes, and it would require about 619 feet to bring a vehicle to a complete stop, Batterson testified.
At that speed, even if Robinson used a turn signal, Deprenda was not going to be able to avoid the accident, Batterson said upon further questioning by Linhardt.
Dinges countered by asking the corporal if Robinson yielded the right-of-way, would the accident have happened? Or if Robinson used a signal, would the officer have had more time to react? Batterson said the collision would not have been as severe.
Dinges said the police pursuit policy has no written guidelines regarding what speed is safe or how fast emergency vehicles should travel on residential streets. “Do you agree it is a judgment call for the officer who is doing his best (he) can do under specific circumstances they are in?” Dinges asked. Batterson agreed.
Stelene testified that he spoke with Trooper Brian Evarts who interviewed Deprenda after the crash and that Deprenda told Evarts he estimated his speed to be 50 to 80 mph.
In a second interview, Deprenda was confronted with evidence showing the highest speed he traveled was 101 mph, information Deprenda has not disputed, Stelene said.
Stelene said he asked Deprenda his plan of dealing with a depression in the pavement of East Third Street that is 300 feet east of the crash site.
“He really hadn’t thought about it,” Stelene said of Deprenda’s response.
Dinges said the dip in the street had no bearing on the accident.
The left lane of the street at the site offers poor visibility to see oncoming traffic or pedestrians crossing, Stelene said.
Stelene said police have a responsibility to anticipate movements of motorists and pedestrians and should slow up at intersections when on pursuit or assisting other officers.
Dinges said just because the accident happened and a tragedy occurred, that did not meet the standard of homicide by vehicle. What may have occurred is negligence and that is a civil case, Dinges said.
“We know the undisputed facts are, the other driver violated vehicle code by failure to yield the right-of-way,” Dinges said. “Was my client supposed to anticipate Robinson not signal a left turn and turning in front of him?”
The accident reconstructionist reported that had Robinson not turned left, the accident would not have occurred, Dinges said.
“There’s no evidence that the (officer) was legally required to anticipate Robinson would violate vehicle code by turning in front of him,” Dinges said.
Linhardt concluded by saying the evidence shows Deprenda’s car reached speeds of 101 mph, on a narrow street, passed cars on the left side of a double lane street at 6:45 p.m. when motorists and pedestrians could be expected out and did not anticipate a depression in the road some 300 feet to the east.
“Testimony of two state police corporals shows Deprenda’s actions were the direct and substantial cause of the accident,” Linhardt said.
Stelene said nobody will ever know whether Robinson heard the siren or saw the flashing police car lights behind him.
Deprenda remains on paid suspension. His court arraignment is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Feb. 24.