Harrold Fruitts, front, and his attorney J. Robert Moon watch testimony Wednesday at the Union County Courthouse. (PHIL BULLOCK/The Observer)
After at least three days of testimony, both sides in the trial of Harold “J.R.” Fruitts gave closing statements on Friday at the Union County Courthouse.
Following the closing statements, the 12-person jury entered into deliberations regarding the death of longtime Union County worker John E. Rysdam III.
Rysdam was struck by a 1996 Ford Bronco driven by Fruitts on Palmer Junction Road just outside Elgin on Feb. 28, 2012. Fruitts is charged with second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and three counts of reckless endangerment of another person. The reckless endangerment charges stem from the fact that three other Union County Public Works employees were at the worksite.
“The issue is whether it was done with recklessness or criminal negligence,” said Kelsie McDaniel, Union County deputy district attorney, during Friday morning’s closing arguments.
A criminally negligent homicide verdict requires jurors to find beyond reasonable doubt that Fruitts was driving far outside the scope of normal behavior to the point of criminal negligence. Manslaughter requires that the state show recklessness, or that the defendant knew and disregarded the risk involved with his conduct.
Referring to testimony from another county worker — Rocky Burgess — at the site where the crew was patching a pothole, McDaniel said they believed Fruitts was accelerating. Burgess and the other employees at the scene also testified that they saw Fruitts swerving.
Fruitts testified that he knew he was staying in his lane.
McDaniel said Fruitts had 8.2 seconds from when he saw the county work truck. Asking jurors to close their eyes or look down, the deputy district attorney set a timer that went off after 8.2 seconds. The state argued that the events of that day were a result of Fruitts’ choice to mess with his stereo rather than watch the road.
“I want you to see what this feels like. That’s how long the defendant had to react,” McDaniel said. “He drove recklessly and with criminal negligence.”
Lead defense attorney J. Robert Moon contended that Fruitts did not close his eyes or look down for eight full seconds. He also said the focus of drivers is usually 100 to 300 feet ahead. At 654 feet away at the crest of the hill, the state argued Fruitts should have seen the work truck with an amber beacon on top.
Moon called the testimony from Burgess “preposterous” and pointed to Fruitts’ action after the crash, when he attempted to resuscitate Rysdam with CPR, according to testimony from a registered nurse who stopped to render aid.
Defense counsel also pointed out that it is uncertain whether Rysdam was wearing a reflective safety vest on the outside of his clothing.
“This case is about a tragic accident,’ Moon told jurors. “The state failed to prove a crime was committed there that day. There is no way Mr. Fruitts did this on purpose.”
In rebuttal, McDaniel said the jury should not consider Fruitts’ actions after the incident but rather his conduct prior to Rysdam’s death and whether that conduct was reasonable given the circumstances
“Focus on the defendant’s conduct on that day driving down the road,” she said.
It was unclear whether or not deliberations would extend through the weekend. A secretary with the court said the judge could make a decision Friday afternoon to send jurors home or to have them stay until a consensus is reached.