Garbage truck driver Dana Naylor was found not guilty for his involvement in a crash that made headlines last year, when an Amtrak train carrying GOP congressmen smashed into his truck in Crozet.
The crash killed Naylor’s friend and coworker, Christopher Foley, who was one of two passengers. The other, Dennis Eddy, was severely injured.
Naylor, 31, was charged with involuntary manslaughter. The prosecution contended that he was criminally negligent and alleged he drove his truck around the downed gates at the Lanetown Road crossing, and that statements he made to police and medical responders in the immediate aftermath—that he was trying to beat the train, and that he had ruined his life and killed his friend—proved guilt.
But defense attorney William Tanner said prosecutors didn’t have sufficient evidence to prove how Naylor got on the tracks. Tanner told jurors they should believe the driver’s original statements that he saw the crossing’s warning lights flashing, tried to cross, and got caught in between the gates that came down around him.
Albemarle County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins struck an additional DUI maiming charge after hearing expert testimony from a forensic toxicologist, who said the level of THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana, in one’s blood does not correlate to the level of impairment.
The commonwealth initially intended to argue that Naylor was impaired during the crash because a blood test found marijuana in his bloodstream. A cop, claiming he smelled beer on Naylor, obtained a search warrant, but the test turned up no traces of alcohol.
Outside of the presence of the jury, prosecutor Juan Vega asked Dr. Jayne Thatcher, from the Virginia Department of Forensic Science, to explain a 2006 study by a behavioral oncologist that related THC levels to impairment. But his plan to link the two backfired when Thatcher said she couldn’t rely on the THC level alone. And the prosecution didn’t have any other evidence from witnesses who observed Naylor at the time of the accident.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci had this explanation: “You can imagine fewer buzzkills greater than a trainwreck.” Had Judge Higgins allowed the charge to move forward, he said he would have presented evidence to the jury that investigators found weed in a tube of Carmex lip balm, which was inside Naylor’s lunchbox in the cab of the truck. He also said there was a “marijuana pipe” found right next to the vehicle on-scene.
Outside the courthouse, after the jury deliberated for several hours to reach the not guilty verdict on the remaining involuntary manslaughter charge, reporters questioned Tracci about whether he thought he would have been able to get a conviction if he’d been able to introduce the additional evidence.
“I think the jury wasn’t able to consider the totality of circumstances supporting the commonwealth’s charging decision,” he said. “They made their decision. We respect that outcome.”
In most states, including Virginia, it’s illegal to drive with a blood alcohol content over 0.08 percent, but states vary when it comes to THC levels and impairment. Currently, Virginia does not have an established limit, and Tracci told reporters he hopes the General Assembly will reconsider establishing one.
In Colorado, you could get a DUI if a blood test reveals five nanograms of THC in your system. Naylor’s test revealed nearly seven nanograms. But because THC can linger in one’s system for weeks, Naylor’s THC levels do not prove he was high at the time.
Over the course of the three-day trial, jurors heard from nearly 30 witnesses, all but one called by the prosecution.
Greg Gooden, who oversees railroad signal maintenance at that crossing in Crozet, said before a train passes, lights and bells will blink and ring for approximately four or five seconds, and then it takes about 12 or 14 seconds for the gates to descend. They must be fully horizontal for at least five seconds before the train crosses, and they’re “not very hard” to drive through in the event of an emergency, he said.
Gooden added that there haven’t been any reported malfunctions at the Lanetown crossing, as far as he’s aware.
Sole defense witness Mandy Snow contradicted Gooden’s testimony. The lifelong Crozet resident said she’s lived in the immediate vicinity of the tracks for two years, crosses them four or five times per day, and that it’s not unusual for the gates to malfunction.
“I’ve also noticed that they don’t come down in time,” she said, adding that she’ll often drive over the crossing and then hear a train barrel past her within seconds. “In my opinion, there’s not enough warning.”
In Tracci’s closing argument, he said her testimony wasn’t reliable, and that Naylor acted with total “reckless disregard for human life” when he decided to try to beat the 60mph train that day in January 2018.
Tanner encouraged the jury to use their common sense in his closing, and asked, “Why would he endanger his crew? …Why in the world would he do that to save about a minute?”
Then Tracci closed out the trial with his own question: “If this isn’t a crime and this isn’t criminal negligence, I ask you again, what is?”
It turned out to not be an easy question to answer. After the verdict, an anonymous juror told reporters the panel’s initial vote found Naylor guilty of involuntary manslaughter by 10 to two.