Little time left for appeal in jet ski case
by Robert Joseph Baker | May 19, 2016 3:47 am
Last Updated: May 18, 2016 at 7:49 pm
The chief prosecutor for the 3rd Circuit Court said that his office has three more days to decide whether to appeal a judge’s decision handed down May 12 that dismissed the state’s case against a 27-year-old Florence man charged with reckless homicide by watercraft in 2014.
This will give 3rd Circuit solicitor Ernest “Chip” Finney III until May 22 to decide whether to appeal Judge W. Jeffrey Young’s decision, which provided a directed verdict in response to a motion from defense counsel Ceth Land.
Justin Reed Walters was charged in fall 2014 with reckless homicide by watercraft, about five months after the May 19, 2014, wreck that took the life of Millicent McDonald of Summerton. Land argued through questioning seven prosecution witnesses on Wednesday that McDonald was also reckless in the operation of a jet ski that day, and that Walters was not the sole contributor to the wreck.
Young ultimately agreed, stating there was not enough evidence for the state to continue its case.
Testimony began May 11 in the case after a jury was picked May 9. No court was held May 10 due to a Confederate holiday.
Walters, who faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted, was accused of operating a jet ski May 19 which ran into McDonald’s at a high rate of speed. McDonald died the next day from traumatic injuries after spending a night on life support in a Columbia hospital.
Third Circuit Assistant Solicitor Chris DuRant said during opening arguments that Walters showed a reckless disregard for human safety and property when he was allegedly operating a jet ski in the Taw Caw area of Summerton about 5:30 p.m. May 19. DuRant said that both Walters and McDonald were cutting donuts and figure eights in the lake when Walters set “on a collision course” with McDonald, ultimately “running her over.”
“No one is saying that Mr. Walters set out with intent to kill Ms. McDonald,” DuRant said. “But I submit to you that we are still responsible for our unintended actions when they have serious consequences.”
Defense attorney Ceth Land agreed with DuRant that the entire incident is a tragedy.
“A tragedy did occur, and one person in this courtroom knows that in his heart. That person is Justin Walters,” said Land. “But what you as the jury have to determine this week is why that tragedy occurred. You’ll have to determine who was really reckless that day and what recklessness led to that tragedy.”
During cross-examination of various witnesses, Land proposed through questioning that McDonald rather than Walters was the one who “set on the collision course” with Walters, not pulling away in time to avoid the wreck.
He questioned various prosecution witnesses – including Meagan Kathryn Wallace and Joseph Stukes, both of whom witnessed the aftermath of the incident. Wallace had been with McDonald, Walters and another young man that day at the lake.
She initially testified that when she returned to the dock from picking up food, she saw McDonald lying motionless on the dock, with Walters standing over her. She claimed that Walters said the pair had been splashing one another in the water when the wreck happened.
“But nowhere in your statement to DNR do you mention anything about Mr. Walters saying anything about splashing?” Land asked, with Wallace replying in the negative.
Stukes testified that he saw a lot of “horsing around” on the jet skis that day and then he and his wife both heard a loud crash. Stukes said he got in his jon boat and went to the dock where McDonald lay. However, on cross examination, Land pointed out to Stukes that his statement to the Department of Natural Resources did not include any language about seeing “horsing around” on jet skis that day.
Sarah Cameron, a resident of Taw Caw Drive in Summerton, also testified that she saw what appeared to be a female “speed ahead of one of the jet skis, make a U-turn and then head back toward the other one.”
“The one closest to me made the U-turn, and I can’t be absolutely certain but I thought it was a female,” she said. “I yelled to my husband that they were gonna collide, and they did.”
DuRant asked Cameron if both parties could have turned to avoid the wreck.
“Yes,” she answered. “They were far enough away from each other to avoid the collision.”
Cameron said that, from her perspective, the jet skis hit “head on.”
“And then I saw one person fly over the other jet ski, and that person looked to be female,” she said.
Two DNR officers testified for the prosecution.
Benjamin Thomas, one of five investigators working for the agency, was entered as an expert in boat accident investigations.
“(McDonald) turned and headed toward Walters,” Thomas said. “She could’ve turned, but Mr. Walters could have also avoided the collision.”
Land ultimately asked Thomas that, if McDonald had lived and Walters had died, would McDonald have been the one on trial this week.
“Had Mr. Walters been killed under these same facts, and Ms. McDonald were alive, yes, she would’ve been charged,” Thomas said.
Melissa Grice, McDonald’s mother, expressed disappointment in the decision on Facebook, saying that she doesn’t feel justice was served in the case. She has contended that Walters had been drinking the day of the wreck; however, the state Department of Natural Resources said Walters passed field sobriety tests given shortly after the wreck. The agency is not required to give breathalyzer tests after watercraft incidents.
Grice has campaigned in the last two years to change that, championing “Milli’s Law,” which would require DNR to automatically breathalyze anyone involved in a watercraft wreck on the lake.
“We have rules of the road that require a breathalyzer,” Grice said in 2015. “Why wouldn’t we have the same for the lake?”