Alexandria Duval trial headed to final arguments, verdict Thursday
WAILUKU — A crash that killed a woman was caused when a sport utility vehicle driven by her twin hit a berm and went out of control over a cliff near Hana, an accident reconstructionist said Wednesday.
Testifying as a defense witness in the 2nd Circuit Court murder trial of Alexandria Duval, Wayne Slagle said data retrieved from the SUV didn’t indicate that the driver was turning the steering wheel sharply left or accelerating to try to go over the cliff or into a rock wall before the crash.
“It’s my opinion that the left front tire hit the berm, you can almost call it a ramp,” Slagle said when asked what caused the May 29, 2016, crash at Milepost 47.5 on Hana Highway. “The left front tire got caught in the berm and the vehicle shifted and rotated to the right.”
The SUV was in a counterclockwise rotation when the passenger side of the SUV hit and went through a rock wall, causing some of the airbags to deploy, Slagle said.
“Then its left front tire has gone airborne,” Slagle said. “The speed increases because the tire is not touching the ground. It goes over the edge.”
He said the front of the white 2016 Ford Explorer hit a rock outcropping before the vehicle rotated 180 degrees to land on its back end on rocks below.
The front-seat passenger, Anastasia Duval, was first thrown forward into the windshield before ending up in the back portion of the SUV. She died at the scene of the crash.
Alexandria Duval, 39, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in her sister’s death.
With testimony concluded Wednesday afternoon, closing arguments were set for this afternoon in the bench trial. Judge Peter Cahill said he expected to reach a verdict Thursday.
The prosecution rested its case Wednesday morning, after testimony by Hana patrol officer Ian Custer, who responded to the emergency call at 4:42 p.m. May 29, 2016, and saw the white SUV 100 to 200 feet down a cliff.
After Custer and officer Chase Bell made their way down to the SUV, Custer said he saw the driver inside and tried to open the door but couldn’t. The SUV was still running, and he could smell gasoline, Custer said.
He said he reached in to turn off the car engine but couldn’t remove the key until he switched the vehicle into park.
After firefighters arrived and extricated the driver, Custer said he helped place her on a board to be airlifted out of the area. He was positioned above her head to shield her from debris caused by the helicopter. “I was able to detect the odor of alcohol,” Custer said.
Portland, Ore.-based Slagle, who was the only witness called by the defense, said he has done accident reconstruction and engineering work for 25 years. He said he has attended training seminars, done thousands of cases of accident reconstruction and testified hundreds of times in federal and state courts.
His opinions contradicted testimony a day earlier by Maui police Sgt. Lawrence Becraft, who was at the scene as a Vehicle Homicide Unit traffic investigator the night of the crash.
Becraft testified that evidence, including data he downloaded from the SUV’s control data recorder, showed the SUV was in a hard left turn and accelerating when it went off the roadway and through a grassy shoulder gap between two rock walls, with the passenger side hitting one rock wall.
The data included five seconds recorded before a “wake-up” leading to airbag deployment, Becraft said, and showed the SUV had been going straight before the sharp left turn.
In contrast, Slagle said steering data indicated “erratic driving” of the SUV before it went off the road.
Witnesses who saw the SUV shortly before the crash reported the passenger was pulling the hair of the driver, whose head was being yanked toward the passenger.
“I believe there was a lot of jerking that went on in reaction,” Slagle said.
Defense attorney Birney Bervar asked if the steering degrees measured before the sharp turn were “consistent with a person who’s trying to keep control of a vehicle, keep it on the road.”
“Yes,” Slagle said.
Bervar asked whether the steering data were consistent with someone turning the wheel 288 degrees out of a full 360 degrees. Slagle said, “No, I believe that was the impact with the berm.”
As for data showing the SUV was traveling 48.3 mph at the “wake-up” time, increasing from 40 mph a half-second earlier, Slagle said, “That means one of the wheels came up and had no traction.”
“That’s when it hit the berm,” he said. “That’s when the left tire came off the road.”
At the point where the SUV hit the berm, “you’re out of control, there’s nothing you can do now,” Slagle said.
He took issue with Becraft’s testimony that both tires were on the asphalt when the speed was recorded at 48.3 mph. “There’s no way it could be on the asphalt,” Slagle said. “You can’t get that much acceleration.”
He said the varying percentages of acceleration, ranging from 0 to 100 percent, also indicated that the driver wasn’t trying to go off the cliff.
“Based on this whole scenario here, if a person were trying to floor it and go off a cliff, I believe it would go to 100 percent and stay there,” Slagle said. “If there was distractions going on, then I can understand why it’s erratic.”
“It doesn’t look like somebody who was trying to get as much speed as they could to get off the cliff,” Slagle said. “The flooring doesn’t actually happen until one second before it hits the berm.
“I think this is consistent with somebody trying to find the brake and not able to do it. It’s not consistent with somebody five seconds before, or even four seconds before, trying to put it to the floor, trying to go over a cliff or rock wall.”
The defense rested its case Wednesday afternoon, following Slagle’s testimony.
When Judge Peter Cahill questioned Duval about her constitutional right to testify or not testify, she said, “I wish to not testify.”
Sgt. Becraft was recalled to the stand as a prosecution rebuttal witness Wednesday afternoon, disagreeing with Slagle’s opinion that contact with the dirt berm could have caused the steering wheel to turn 288 degrees to the left.
“This was all driver input,” Becraft said.
When the sharp turn occurs, “the vehicle is clearly, clearly on the roadway,” Becraft said. “It is nowhere near the berm when that steering input began.”
Granting a defense request, Judge Cahill ordered Becraft’s rebuttal testimony stricken after questioning a plainclothes police officer who was in the courtroom gallery during testimony by Becraft and Slagle. The officer said that during a break Wednesday she had talked to Becraft about how she didn’t agree with some of Slagle’s testimony.
Deputy Prosecutor Emlyn Higa said he was with Becraft and the officer when they spoke.
“She didn’t say anything to Sgt. Becraft that I didn’t say,” Higa said. “She might have spoken three or four sentences while I was there.”
Nineteen witnesses testified in the trial, which began Monday.