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Jury acquits driver of intoxication manslaughter

By Jessica Priest
Dec. 6, 2012 at 6:06 a.m.


•  Someone commits intoxication manslaughter if he "operates a motor vehicle in a public place" and is "intoxicated and by reason of that intoxication causes the death of another by accident or mistake."

•  A person commits manslaughter if he recklessly causes the death of an individual.

• Criminal negligence means a person "ought to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk" in the results of his actions. "The risk must be of such a nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise."

Source: Texas Penal Code

A Victoria County jury determined Thursday a 64-year-old driver was neither legally intoxicated nor criminally negligent during a fatal accident last summer.

Jerry William Cole, of Corpus Christi, was on trial this week for the death of Robert Andrew Morriss Jr., 28.

Cole, the state argued, failed to yield the right-of-way while making a U-turn on Loop 463, also known as U.S. Highway 77, about 4:30 p.m. July 11, 2011, while intoxicated on several prescription medications, specifically Xanax and Neurontin.

Morriss, who was traveling behind Cole and towing a 40- to 50-foot trailer, didn't have time to stop. He hit Cole's white Mazda5 SUV, crossed into the southbound lanes and crashed into some trees, where his Chevrolet Silverado erupted into flames.

The U-turn Cole made that day on that stretch of U.S. Highway 77 was legal.

The jury was instructed by Judge Stephen Williams about 10:30 a.m. Thursday to consider whether Cole was guilty of one of three charges - intoxication manslaughter, manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide.

Essentially, they acquitted Cole of all three.

Morriss' family, of Lampasas, is reeling about a decision they say was unjust.

"Watch out for your loved ones on the road," the victim's mother, Lisa Morriss, said while tearing up.

The victim's father, Robert Andrew Morriss Sr., said jurors may have been sympathetic toward Cole because of his age.

"But it doesn't matter if you're 64 or not. If you get behind a wheel, you're a weapon," he said.

They described their first-born son, who left behind a 5-year-old child, as ambitious and hardworking. They said that on the day of the crash he was traveling from Refugio to Madisonville, where he was installing barrier cables on Interstate 45 that would make it harder for someone to make a U-turn.

"He was saving people's lives," Lisa Morriss said.

"He was a great man, a great son and a great father," Robert Andrew Morriss Sr. said.

During closing arguments, defense attorney Keith Weiser asked the jurors to stay grounded in the facts after Assistant District Attorney Pink Dickens showed them first a picture of what Robert Andrew Morris Jr. looked like an hour before the accident and then a picture of his charred remains. Weiser said it played on their emotions.

He told them to examine EMT and Citizens Medical Center records during their deliberations, which he said would indicate Cole was "awake, alert and following commands." He said this evidence conflicted with the Wednesday testimony of Department of Public Safety Trooper Frank Casillas, who described Cole as "incoherent," even though he never saw nor interviewed Cole at the scene.

"Would someone who was incoherent be able to drive from Tivoli?" Weiser asked, referring to how dispatch received no calls about a reckless driver that afternoon. "It was just an accident, folks. A horrible accident."

Weiser said afterward that he was pleased with the verdict for his client.

Dickens, meanwhile, encouraged jurors not to leave behind their common sense. He said it didn't require much effort for Cole to appear alert if nurses only asked him to blink and respond to their questions as he rested. He said it wasn't a normal reaction for Cole to walk around "nonchalantly" on a fractured ankle while Robert Andrew Morriss Jr. burned a few hundred feet away. He said Cole didn't have a prescription for some of the medicine found in his system.

"Either he was impaired or he is a monster, and I don't believe he is a monster," Dickens said. "How did he look in his mirror and miss a 50-foot trailer? This was not a Volkswagen in your blind spot ... Did he accidentally put pills in his mouth? None of these actions was accidental."

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