In a ruling Wednesday, Lorain County Juvenile Court Magistrate Steve List wrote that prosecutors failed to prove that Laniqua Lusane was responsible for the Feb. 27, 2012, crash, which claimed the life of 16-year-old Alexandra Clifford.
Prosecutors had argued that Lusane, who was 17 at the time, was speeding before she lost control of the 1999 Ford Escort she was driving on state Route 2.
But defense attorney Mike Duff said Lusane wasn’t responsible because Clifford, who was riding in the front passenger seat, had grabbed the wheel when the car veered onto the rumble strips on the side of the road and that caused the crash.
List concluded that by grabbing the wheel, Clifford effectively became the operator of the vehicle.
He wrote that “but for the unexpected and unwanted input from Clifford, which radically altered the path of the vehicle, there is nothing before the Court which proves that the vehicle became uncontrollable on this stretch of roadway due to its speed.”
List also wrote that the car crashed 1.1 to 1.5 seconds after it began its “fatal slide” and thus Lusane couldn’t have overcorrected if she tried to regain control of the Escort.
“Therefore it was not possible to have physically prevented this vehicle from suffering its fate, as there was insufficient time to provide for such a correction,” List wrote.
Although Ohio Highway Patrol troopers estimated the car was travelling between 70 mph and 82 mph, above the posted speed limit, there is no evidence that speed would have prevented efforts to regain control of the car, List wrote. He also wrote that the tire marks left by the vehicle didn’t indicate that there had been an effort to steer out of the slide.
After the Escort went off the side of the road, it hit an embankment and went airborne, striking several trees. Lusane, Clifford and Tyrell Hicks and Lucius Johnson, who had been riding in the back, all were injured, but only Clifford’s wounds proved fatal.
Duff said List made the right decision clearing his client.
“That case never should have been filed,” he said. “There was not a scintilla of evidence that she caused the accident. The decedent was the direct and proximate cause of the accident and there was no doubt about that. Unfortunately, she lost her life due to horseplay.”
County Prosecutor Dennis Will said he was still reviewing the decision and couldn’t comment.
The verdict wasn’t a complete victory for Duff, who had asked List to declare that assistant county prosecutors Jay Grunda and Adam Bryda had engaged in prosecutorial misconduct by coaching witnesses.
During the trial, Johnson testified that prosecutors had told him not to bring up the wheel grab when he took the stand. Duff said it appeared that prosecutors were improperly trying to hide the key piece of evidence in the case.
Will has denied that allegation. He has said Grunda and Bryda were trying to explain that they weren’t going to bring up the issue of Clifford grabbing the wheel, but that Johnson and Hicks should tell the truth if asked about it by Duff.
Will also has said it’s implausible to argue that prosecutors were trying to hide evidence since Duff and List had been given a police report detailing the wheel grab.
Duff said it’s not a matter of not telling him about the evidence, but rather an attempt to tamper with witnesses to win a case.
“There’s a big difference between failing to disclose exculpatory evidence and what they did in coaching,” Duff said. “They purposefully told them to mislead the court.”
Duff said he feels he has an ethical obligation to file a disciplinary complaint against Grunda and Bryda. Such complaints are confidential and Duff said he couldn’t discuss the matter further.
Will said Duff should take whatever action he deems appropriate if he believes there was misconduct.