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Judge dismisses charge of causing deputy's death

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Curtis Bartlett was killed on his way to join officers chasing Joseph Lambert in March 2017, but a judge ruled the suspect wasn’t responsible for the Carroll County deputy’s fatal crash

By Ethan Campbell

HILLSVILLE – Just over two years since the death of Carroll County Deputy Curtis Bartlett in the line of duty, a case against the man many blamed for his death was finally heard in court.

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The March 13 jury trial was to determine Joseph A. Lambert’s level of accountability for the fatal results of his actions.

Police were chasing Lambert, 23, of Bedford County, in March 2017; Bartlett was responding to his fellow officers’ calls for help when he crashed into a tractor-trailer and died. Lambert was charged with felony eluding police, resulting in the death of an officer.

However, after hearing testimony at Lambert’s March 13 jury trial in Carroll County Circuit Court, a judge granted the defense’s motion to strike the felony charge and Lambert was allowed to go free on bond.

The case was heard by Judge David A Melesco, a special case judge from Franklin County. Local judges and prosecutors had recused themselves from the case due to the fact Bartlett was a Carroll officer, citing potential conflicts of interest.

On March 9, 2017, Lambert had refused to stop for Lt. Bobby Lyons of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, after Lyons observed him traveling at reckless speeds on Interstate 77.

During the pursuit that night, Bartlett, 32 — a patrolman, school resource officer and K9 handler for the sheriff’s department — was killed in a vehicle crash approximately one mile from the scene of where Lambert took his vehicle off-road through the yards of residential neighborhoods off Training Center Road.

Bartlett died on impact, shortly before Lambert was apprehended and taken into custody.

A jury was selected this last Wednesday to hear accounts from witnesses at both the scene of Lambert’s alleged offense and the crash involving Bartlett.

A special prosecutor, Patrick County Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Brinegar-Vipperman, presented the state’s case during the trial. After an extensive two hours of testimony, Judge Melesco dismissed the jury following a motion by Lambert’s attorney, Jonathon Venzie of Independence. Venzie had argued that Lambert was not the direct cause of the vehicle crash involving Bartlett.

Under Venzie’s counsel, Lambert pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of felony eluding law enforcement and one misdemeanor charge of reckless driving.

The Chase

The trial began with opening statements from both sides, during which Vipperman asserted the law of proximate causation, which pertains to any happening that results in an event, particularly injury due to negligence or an intentional wrongful act. “The question that the jury must decide and answer is [whether] Lambert, who started the chain of events, is held accountable for the results of that chain of events.”

In his opening statement, Venzie attempted to identify emotional biases of the case, and further brought up the driving protocols that are extended to law enforcement personnel during an emergency situation, as defined by state law and the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office pursuit manual.

Lyons testified that he was running stationary radar on I-77 at approximately the 18.6-mile marker, checking southbound traffic, when he observed a vehicle he though was traveling at a rate of speed above the posted limit of 65 mph. Lyons said there was an audible Doppler tone on the radar, and that he determined that the driver of the vehicle was traveling at 87 mph.

Lyons attempted to initiate a traffic stop by activating his blue lights and sirens, and Lambert’s vehicle started to slow down and pull over on the right shoulder of the interstate, but then quickly got back over into the right lane and sped off.

Lyons testified to the remaining details regarding the chase, stating that Lambert continued on I-77 reaching a top speed of 95 mph. He took Exit 14 at Hillsville, continued left onto U.S. 58 and then shortly onto Airport Road at speeds of 65-70 mph, using the right lane and the left lane, heading into oncoming traffic.

According to Lyons’ testimony, Lambert turned onto Training Center Road from Airport Road, and then went through a field between Training Center Road and Oakland Heights Road, where he continued driving through yards in the housing development before turning into a driveway and then going into a field.

During Lyons’ testimony, a dash-cam video from Lyons’ patrol car, showing a time of approximately 10:35 p.m., was also shown to the jury, and an audio recording of the radio traffic between law enforcement was played.

Venzie followed with a cross examination regarding the department’s pursuit manuals from Lyons’ perspective as a supervisor. Venzie cited several clauses from the pursuit manual, stating, “One of the sections says regardless of the seriousness of the situation, except in circumstances beyond the officer’s control, the officer shall be held in control of the vehicle they are operating.”

He added, “It calls for officers to reduce speed and stay aware of the situation when approaching controlled intersections... There’s also a state law that says emergency vehicles are authorized to go through red lights and stop signs, but they are required to proceed with caution.”

Venzie asked whether Lyons permitted any deputies, including Bartlett, to disregard the pursuit rules of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office. Lyons testified that he did not authorize Bartlett to disregard the rules.

When asked by Venzie if any officer had ever asked him for permission to speed, Lyons replied, “No.”

Trooper M. Cochran of the Virginia State Police gave an account from the time of hearing Lyons announce on the radio that he was in pursuit, throughout arriving on Airport Road to see two set of headlights, one with emergency lights on top traveling through a field to his left.

At that time, Cochran stated that he was approximately halfway between Training Center Road and Oakland Heights, and he remained at that position briefly in order to determine which way Lambert would exit the field. Cochran continued, stating that Lambert exited the field on Oakland Heights, and he proceeded to the location to find Lyons out of the vehicle and chasing Lambert on foot.

Cochran, who was the first officer on scene to assist Lyons, stated that he caught up and passed Lyons while in pursuit of Lambert. Cochran stated that when he approached, Lambert informed him that he had knives in his possession. Cochran stated that, at this time, he drew his service weapon and waited for Lyons — who was just a short distance behind — to catch up and assist in securing Lambert.

It was confirmed during both Lyons’ and Cochran’s testimonies that two knives were recovered form Lambert, as well as a green plant-like material. Both stated that Lambert was taken into custody without further incident once apprehended on foot.

The Crash

Deputy Miranda Honeycutt was called next to testify. She also was en route to assist Lyons with the pursuit, driving just a short distance behind Bartlett at the time his crash occurred.

Honeycutt stated that she had pulled over to make a phone call at an area of the Hillsville bypass when she heard Lyons say over the radio that he was involved in a pursuit. Honeycutt then got onto the bypass, headed on U.S. 58 toward Hillsville and at this time saw Bartlett traveling west out of Hillsville on U.S. 58.

Honeycutt further stated that Bartlett was traveling in the left lane with his lights and sirens activated, and that she merged into the right lane just beside, but slightly behind him with her lights and sirens activated.

It was clarified during the trial that Honeycutt was traveling on Bartlett’s “wing,” meaning that their driving formation was in close quarters with Honeycutt being beside Bartlett in the right lane, with the nose of her patrol car just behind Bartlett’s passenger door.

When asked to account for traffic conditions, Honeycutt stated that road was clear until she and Bartlett arrived near the Rio Grande restaurant close to the interstate. She noticed that the first stoplight was red.

Honeycutt testified that there were vehicles waiting on 58 eastbound to turn left onto I-77 toward Wytheville, and that she slowed down to make sure she was seen before proceeding through the red light. Honeycutt said Bartlett proceed at a faster speed through the light, and gained some distance.

Honeycutt continued, “I didn’t see the truck [at the second light at the interchange] but I was focused on the red light in front of me. I noticed when I got through the first one, [Bartlett] swerved to the right and collided with the back part of the tractor-trailer. He got drug through the intersection and then the truck broke free.”

She called on the radio to report Bartlett had been involved in a vehicle accident, which was consistent with the audio recording.

Venzie asked Honeycutt to provide an account of the scene.

“He was unresponsive and not breathing,” she said. “We had to pry the door open. I checked for a pulse, but did not find one. There was a nurse at the scene that entered the vehicle and performed chest compressions. When he did not respond we moved him out into the roadway and continued to work on him.”

Honeycutt also testified that Bartlett’s K9 was in the vehicle and survived the crash.

Venzie further questioned Honeycutt about being trained to respond to high-speed pursuits, and if her training had a lasting impression on her. Honeycutt said her training at the police academy did have a lasting impression.

Venzie pressed harder by asking Honeycutt if Bartlett slowed down at the first red light. Honeycutt answered, “He did not.”

Venzie asked Honeycutt what she thought when Bartlett did not slow down.

At this time, the prosecution objected, saying that Honeycutt’s opinion was irrelevant.

Venzie countered again, stating that Honeycutt was a trained officer and that her qualified professional opinion was critical in the case.

The jury was asked to leave the room. With the jury absent, Melesco gestured for Honeycutt to answer the question.

She replied, “I just could believe he didn’t slow down.”

Venzie continued, “Is that consistent with your training?”

“Inconsistent,” she answered.

Venzie asked, “Is that inconsistent with the policy manual?”

Honeycutt answered, “yes.”

Venzie continue, “He violated them, didn’t he.”

Honeycutt again answered, “yes.”

Vipperman again objected, arguing that Honeycutt’s answer did not prove a superseding condition of the case.

Melesco intervened before asking the jury to return to the chambers, saying “I will allow this. I think the citizens need to hear it.”

Venzie posed the same questions to Honeycutt once the jury had taken their seats. He further asked her to clarify the conditions of the intersection. Honeycutt stated that the tractor-trailer had just entered the intersection and was cutting off all westbound lanes.

He continued the cross examination, “Did you see brakes on Curtis Bartlett’s vehicle?”

“No,” Honeycutt answered.

Venzie continued, “What did you think?”

“I just couldn’t believe he didn’t slow down,” Honeycutt replied.

Venzie asked the next question, “You thought he was lucky to get past the first light?”

“Yes,” Honeycutt answered.

Venzie finished, “And he ran out of luck between the first and second lights, didn’t he?”

“Yes,” Honeycutt finished.

Motion to Strike

Venzie followed her testimony with motion to strike the felony charge based on a “fault of the court” — that his client was never asked to plead guilty to either charge in previous proceedings, to which Melesco answered, “That’s my fault.”

Venzie continued with a second motion to drop the charge of eluding police resulting in an officer’s death, based on the grounds that Lambert was unable to foresee the manner in which an officer would respond.

“There was no brake light [on Bartlett’s vehicle],” Venzie said “He doesn’t brake before he hits [the tractor trailer]. This was nothing that my client could foresee, and if he can’t foresee it, then he can’t be responsible for it.”

The prosecution argued again that the defense did not prove a superseding event to proximate causation, and that Lambert should have foreseen that eluding the police would cause chaos on the road.

“Of course [Bartlett] is going to run a red light and of course he is going to speed,” Vipperman said. “Maybe Curtis could have done something different, but that does not mean the defendant is not responsible for setting it in motion.”

She further argued that the matter in question was a legal issue that the jury should decide.

Melesco took several minutes to ponder before responding.

“What is foreseeable?” he asked. “Was it foreseeable that the officer would drive that badly?”

Vipperman noted that Lambert eluded the police for nearly eight minutes while driving at reckless speeds and heading into oncoming traffic at times.

She continued, “All Curtis hears is that there is a pursuit and that he has to get there and give backup, because at that time Lyons had nobody.”

Melesco again asked, “Is it foreseeable that an officer is going to drive that badly?”

Despite Vipperman’s closing arguments, Melesco concluded that he could not support a claim that the defendant or anyone else could have foreseen the manner in which an officer would drive.

Melesco moved to entertain Venzie’s motion to strike the charges of felony eluding police resulting in the death of an officer, and dismissed the jury from the case.

Venzie further moved to request that bond be set for the defendant, who has been held without bond since March 2017.

When the prosecution was asked for a requested amount to be set, Vipperman refused to give a number and noted that Sam Bartlett, Bartlett’s father, still wished to give a victim impact statement to the court.

The defense presented facts of the defendant’s current circumstances. Lambert faces additional convictions for an offense that occurred in Roanoke, for driving under a revoked license in 2016; and is currently involved in a case with the Department of Social Services in Franklin County, for which his children were taken into foster care while he has been incarcerated while awaiting trial.

Melesco concluded the trial with the comment, “This was an extremely difficult case and I thought it was handled wonderfully by both sides.”

Lambert received a $15,000 secured bond and a sentencing hearing has been set for April 29 at 11 a.m. in Carroll county Circuit Court.

Lambert faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison for the amended charge of felony eluding law enforcement, and up to 12 months for reckless driving. He also faces up to a $5,000 fine for each of the charges.

Lambert was previously convicted on July 7, 2017, for possession of Marijuana in Carroll County General District Court.