Crucial drug-related evidence and testimony will be excluded from the trial of a trash truck driver charged in a deadly 2018 train crash.
In Albemarle Circuit Court on Tuesday, Judge Cheryl Higgins granted a defense motion to exclude expert testimony and evidence that the commonwealth argued would prove Dana Naylor Jr. was impaired by THC at the time of the crash.
Naylor is charged with involuntary manslaughter and maiming under the influence after authorities said he drove a Time Disposal trash truck onto the tracks in Crozet, colliding with a chartered Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress, killing Christopher Foley and gravely injuring Dennis Eddy.
However, the argument for the DUI charge has been thrown into uncertainty after Higgins ruled to exclude testimony from Dr. Jayne Thatcher, a forensic toxicology expert.
Outside the presence of the jury, Higgins listened to testimony from Thatcher about levels of THC — tetrahydrocannabinol, the main active ingredient in marijuana — found in Naylor’s blood and whether that could be used to prove impairment.
Approximately five hours after the crash on Jan. 31, 2018, the Albemarle County Police Department obtained a warrant to draw Naylor’s blood. The warrant was obtained using claims from Detective Mike Wells that Naylor “smelled of beer,” during an interview at the University of Virginia Medical Center. According to earlier testimony, Naylor’s blood sample tested negative for alcohol but tested positive for THC.
Juan Vega, assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Albemarle County, asked Thatcher questions about a 2006 study conducted by her colleague Dr. Johannes Ramaekers that looked into the connection between THC levels in blood and impairment.
In the study, Thatcher said 71 percent of participants with 2.5 to 5 nanograms per milliliter of THC in their blood samples were found to be impaired when fulfilling three different performance tests. As the THC levels increased, so did the percentage of those impaired, she said, clarifying that the degree of impairment was not described.
Naylor’s blood had 6.6 nanograms per milliliter of THC in it, she said.
However, due to a variety of variable factors — including body mass, age, frequency of use, etc. — Thatcher said she could not definitively say whether Naylor was impaired at the time of the crash or blood draw.
“You cannot say whether or not a person was impaired based on toxicology,” she said. “THC is particularly tricky.”
William Tanner, Naylor’s attorney, pointed to various studies that backed up Thatcher’s uncertainty and argued the commonwealth was trying to “bootstrap” the idea Naylor was impaired to their claims he drove around crossing gate arms to get onto the train tracks.
“Nobody on Earth can say whether a specific concentration of THC can cause impairment,” Tanner said, motioning to several printed scientific studies on the table.
Vega countered that he was in agreement that the correlation between THC levels and impairment was uncertain, but he thought a jury should be allowed to determine the facts of the case.
“I think we’re almost in complete agreement, except we reached different conclusions,” Vega said to Tanner.
Higgins agreed with Tanner and granted the defense’s motion to exclude Thatcher’s testimony along with the toxicological report.
The motion to exclude had been filed prior to the trial, but Higgins had taken it under consideration until she could hear Thatcher’s testimony.
Later Tuesday, outside the presence of the jury, Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci revealed the commonwealth also intended to introduce evidence of marijuana found in a lunchbox inside the truck.
Tracci said he would seek to prove through testimony that the small amount of marijuana found in a Carmex container inside the lunch box belonged to Naylor. However, following the exclusion of testimony and evidence regarding THC levels and impairment, Higgins ruled that the evidence would unfairly prejudice the jury against Naylor.
Among the nearly dozen witnesses who did testify in front of the jury Tuesday was Dennis Eddy, father of the crash survivor with the same name. According to Eddy, his son suffered severe brain damage during the crash, which has forever altered his life.
He said his son, who is currently living at an inpatient rehabilitation facility in Blacksburg, no longer has the confidence or abilities he had prior to the crash.
“When he walked up to you, he had this confidence you could feel,” Eddy said of his son. “Now he’s withdrawn and easily agitated.”
Eddy also suffers from short-term memory loss, often being unable to remember sentences after reading them, and has stuttered speech, among other injuries.
Dr. Richard Kunz, of the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System, said he cared for Eddy for approximately 49 days after the crash. For patients who suffer severe brain injuries like Eddy, he said the recovery time is around 12 to 18 months.
However, after the first year, a patient is unlikely to recover any abilities if they have not already done so, Kunz said.
When in his care, Kunz said Eddy was “extremely agitated” and posed a risk to both himself and the hospital’s staff. He clarified this was not uncommon for someone with that type of severe brain injury, who are often so disoriented they cannot remember their names.
Kunz said in addition to the brain injury, Eddy suffered fractures to his face, hip, pelvis, tail bone and right elbow.
Boyd McCauley, owner of Time Disposal, said he helped the National Transportation Board with its investigation the day after the crash. He also identified Foley’s body on the day of the crash.
McCauley attempted to drive an identical trash truck around the crossing gate arms the day after the crash and was unable to maneuver around both.
Gregory Gooden, of Buckingham Branch Railroad, said he is in charge of monitoring the crossing signals along the stretch of track where the crash occurred.
The crossing was likely functional when the crash occurred, he said, and four maintenance requests during the year prior were related to track repairs.
According to Gooden, the arms are fully horizontal about 15 seconds before a train crosses. Though the arms are secured, he said it would not take much to knock one down.
“It’s not hard to drive through the arms, there’s only one pin holding them,” he said. “It doesn’t take much; a strong person could probably break one.”
Witness testimony will continue Wednesday morning, and a jury verdict is expected sometime in the evening.