Note: This story was last updated at 2:30 a.m.
CLINTON—An Anderson County jury on Wednesday found Lee Harold Cromwell, 68, of Oak Ridge, guilty of one count of vehicular homicide and eight counts of aggravated assault for killing one person and injuring eight others during a parking lot crash at Midtown Community Center after fireworks in Oak Ridge on July 4, 2015.
The 12-person jury—six men and six women—unanimously returned the guilty verdicts just before 3 p.m. Wednesday. The case had been sent to the jury about four hours earlier, just before 11 a.m.
The jury verdicts came at the end of a three-day trial that started Monday morning in Anderson County Criminal Court in Clinton. Senior Judge Paul Summers heard the case because Judge Don Elledge had recused himself due to liens filed against him by Cromwell.
A sentencing hearing has been set for Cromwell for 9 a.m. April 11.
Cromwell was convicted of killing James Robinson, 37, of Knoxville, and assaulting eight others with his Dodge Ram pickup truck as he crashed into several vehicles while backing through the crowded parking lot at Midtown Community Center in Oak Ridge on July 4, 2015, after fireworks across the street at Alvin K. Bissell Park. Robinson was struck and fatally injured as he rushed to push his two young daughters out of the way of Cromwell’s fast-moving truck. The others who were injured survived, although at least one of the victims has suffered from some long-term effects.
The crash was one of the worst that anyone can remember in Oak Ridge.
Robinson’s wife Julia wept after the verdict was announced Wednesday and she watched as Cromwell, who had his bond revoked, was led away by authorities, to be taken immediately to the Anderson County Detention Facility in Clinton. She and family and friends and other victims exchanged hugs.
“I’m proud of our system,” said Michael Eldridge, one of the victims who has used a walking stick since the crash. Eldridge, who has testified about what he saw as the crash unfolded, starting with the sideswiping of a Ford Thunderbird, said he is a Christian and believes in forgiveness.
But, “with every action, there is a reaction,” Eldridge said. “I feel that justice has been served.”
Anderson County District Attorney General Dave Clark said he was grateful to the judge and jury, his prosecutors, and “everyone who has worked so hard to bring justice to this case.”
Defense attorney James Scott huddled with Cromwell’s family and friends after Cromwell, who had stood to hear the verdicts, was detained and taken away by Anderson County deputies.
Fifteen people testified during the trial in Anderson County Criminal Court this week, mostly on Tuesday. Several testified that they had seen Cromwell hit one or two vehicles, stop each time for a few seconds after the crash, and then eventually “floor” the accelerator or back quickly through the crowded parking lot.
“He was attempting to flee,” Anderson County Deputy District Attorney General Tony Craighead said during closing arguments Wednesday morning. He compared what he called the reckless behavior of Cromwell backing his pickup truck at high speed through a crowded parking lot to firing a bullet through the parking lot—both are reckless, Craighead said.
The state didn’t have to prove knowledge or “what was in his (Cromwell’s) heart,” Craighead said. Prosecutors only had to prove recklessness, he said.
Craighead dismissed the suggestion by an expert witness for the defense that the crash was due to a pedal mix-up, meaning possible confusion between the gas and brake pedals that led to an unintended acceleration. Only 1 percent of crashes are due to pedal mix-ups, Craighead said.
“If it’s not a pedal mix-up, this man is guilty,” Craighead said of Cromwell.
The deputy DA also dismissed other issues raised by the defense—including a fine paid by Chrysler for what Scott said had been an effort to try to hide defects—as extraneous issues.
“That truck was never recalled for a throttle body,” Craighead said.
Cromwell told at least two people the night of the crash that his throttle had stuck, according to testimony, but the prosecution argued that there were no problems with the pickup truck and the throttle was not stuck open or defective, according to a mechanic’s examination.
Scott told jurors that no one knew where Cromwell’s foot was the night of the crash or whether it was on the gas pedal. Besides a pedal mix-up, the defense had raised the possibility that a floor mat might have interfered with Cromwell’s accelerator.
The 1 percent of crashes caused by pedal mix-ups equates to hundreds of crashes per year, Scott said.
He said drugs and alcohol were not suspected in the crash, and there is no evidence that Cromwell tried to flee. One witness had testified that Cromwell had appeared scared, distressed, and distraught, Scott said.
There was no intent on Cromwell’s part and no knowledge of serious bodily injury or death, Scott said.
“This all happened in a second, just like that,” he told jurors. “It was a quick incident that could have happened to any driver.”
After the convictions Wednesday afternoon, bail was revoked for Cromwell, and he was taken into custody immediately. Cromwell had been free on bond.
While discussing his bail, authorities said Cromwell has been indicted on Class A and Class E felonies in Davidson County in Nashville, and served with court papers on Wednesday, although they didn’t elaborate on the charges.
Summers told Cromwell some of the people he injured during the parking lot crash were young, and some were extremely vulnerable.
“You are potentially dangerous,” Summers told Cromwell. “And secondly, you are a flight risk. And thirdly, you show no remorse whatsoever. This court revokes your bond, and remands you to the Anderson County Jail.”
It’s not clear if the indictments discussed Wednesday are related to $137 million in liens filed by Cromwell against local law enforcement officials and agencies, as well as against the Internal Revenue Service and a Social Security service center. Summers has previously warned Cromwell that filing a fraudulent lien is a Class E felony in Tennessee. Elledge previously told Oak Ridge Today that he has discussed the liens filed against him by Cromwell with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a federal task force, the Seventh District Attorney General’s Office (the Anderson County DA), and local legislators.
After the verdict on Wednesday, the Anderson County District Attorney General’s Office asked for Cromwell’s bail to be revoked, at least in part because of the new indictments in Davidson County.
Asked about the indictments, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said they are sealed, and the TBI can’t discuss the specifics but will elaborate when it can.
In a separate matter related to the July 4, 2015, crash, an indictment against Cromwell for driving on a suspended license has been re-filed separately from the vehicular homicide and aggravated assault trial. That charge had been part of earlier indictments that included the vehicular homicide and aggravated assault charges filed May 3, 2016, for the fatal Midtown Community Center crash, but the driving on a suspended license charge has been severed.
It’s not immediately clear what will happen next with that charge.
Some of the earlier charges, reckless homicide and criminally negligent homicide, had been included in the criminal trial this week as what are known as lesser-included offenses for the jury to consider Wednesday. So, if the jury hadn’t been able to unanimously agree on vehicular homicide, they could have returned a verdict of guilty of reckless homicide. If they hadn’t been able to unanimously agree on that, they could have returned a verdict of guilty of criminally negligent homicide.
Cromwell’s license at the time of the July 4, 2015, crash had been suspended for failure to “satisfy original violations in the Oak Ridge City Court,” according to court records. The precise violations weren’t listed. In an affidavit filed in Oak Ridge City Court in May 2014, Cromwell said, while contesting a speeding ticket, that he denies the corporate existence of the United States, Tennessee, and a long list of agencies that include the Oak Ridge Police Department and Anderson County Sheriff’s Department.
See previous story from two days of testimony at the trial here.
See story on the $137 million in liens filed by Cromwell here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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