A judge has denied the motion for a new trial for Lee Harold Cromwell, the man convicted of vehicular homicide in a 2015 fireworks crash at Midtown Community Center in Oak Ridge.
Cromwell, 67, was convicted of one count of vehicular homicide and eight counts of aggravated assault after a three-day trial in Anderson County Criminal Court in Clinton in February. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison in June.
The crash occurred when Cromwell backed his Dodge Ram pickup truck through the crowded parking lot of the Midtown Community Center after fireworks in Oak Ridge on July 4, 2015. The crash killed James Robinson of Knoxville, a husband and father of two young girls, and it injured at least eight others. It’s one of the worst crashes anyone can remember in Oak Ridge.
Cromwell’s motion for a new trial was heard by Senior Judge Paul G. Summers in Anderson County Criminal Court in Clinton on June 27.
Summers denied the motion for a new trial that day. He issued an order July 5.
The case has been appealed to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals in Knoxville.
Among the arguments used by District Defender Tom Marshall to request a new trial in June:
- The evidence was insufficient to support the convictions. During the motion hearing in June, Marshall said there wasn’t sufficient proof that the state had proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Cromwell’s behavior was reckless, that he was aware of the risks of backing his pickup truck through the crowded parking lot but ignored those risks anyway. The state hadn’t identified whether the risk was simply backing or the sudden acceleration, Marshall said. Summers disagreed, saying the evidence was more than sufficient to find Cromwell acted recklessly, causing injuries to the victims and the death of Robinson. “The evidence was overwhelming as to the defendant’s guilt on all counts,” Summers said. “He needs to thank Jesus Christ, since he was talking about Jesus Christ a lot (during his sentencing hearing), that the state didn’t charge him with murder and attempted murder.” Summers said he thinks there was evidence to prove those charges as well.
- The court erred by failing to allow the defense to play a video of a newscast that discussed unintended acceleration in other vehicles. Marshall said there is some evidence that people of a certain age have trouble with the accelerator and brake pedals. But the court found that the newscast video was inadmissible because, among other things, the video creators could not be cross-examined and there was no way for the court or jurors to assess the accuracy of the claims made in the video. Also, an expert witness used by the defense could not say that the video related either to the specific pickup truck driven by Cromwell or even the same model of truck. The court did allow the defense expert to testify, Summers said.
- Adverse publicity surrounding the crash prevented a fair trial. But Summers said there had been a lengthy questioning of prospective jurors before the trial, and Cromwell did not provide any evidence or cite a single example of how adverse publicity denied him a fair trial. “In direct questioning by the court, each juror swore under oath that they could be fair and impartial,” Summers said. “This court finds that they were. Voir dire (the questioning of prospective jurors) was thorough. The defendant is not entitled to relief on this issue.” There was no evidence that the jury was tainted, and if his memory is correct, there were many prospective jurors who didn’t know a lot about the case, Summers said.
- The court erred in allowing state prosecutors to argue a “bullet in a crowd” analogy during its closing argument, comparing the recklessness of Cromwell’s backing his speeding pickup truck through a crowded parking lot to firing a bullet through a crowd. “I’m not sure that analogy is very good,” Marshall said. “I certainly don’t think it should have gone to the jury. I think a bullet would be a little scarier than a truck.” But Summers said the defense did not object to the use of this analogy at trial. Also, the court found the analogy to be appropriate, Summers said. “Both would be reckless,” he said. Anderson County Assistant District Attorney General Tony Craighead said the bullet-in-a-crowd analogy was an appropriate argument.
- The court failed to consolidate offenses. Each count of the indictment was a distinct crime, Summers said. “The court finds that consolidation would not be appropriate,” he said. “The court did group similarly situated victims when deciding to run sentences concurrently or consecutively.”
- The sentences imposed are inappropriate. The court considered enhancing, mitigating, and other factors related to consecutive versus concurrent sentences, Summers said. “The court issued a detailed sentencing order with the findings of fact and conclusions of law…The sentences imposed are justly deserved.” The nine convictions were split into three groups related to the individual victims, and Summers used those three groups to determine Cromwell’s effective 12-year sentence. Some of the sentences are concurrent, and others are consecutive.
In his order, Summers said the witnesses at trial were credible, articulate, and eloquent.
“The weight of the testimonial evidence and physical evidence was, as well, overwhelming,” Summers said. “The evidence, testimonial and otherwise, was sufficient as a matter of law to sustain conviction on all counts.”
Cromwell’s misdemeanor charge of driving on a suspended license, a case that was going to be heard separately, has been dismissed. That charge was dismissed for judicial economy and because Cromwell was convicted of several felonies, Craighead told Summers during the June 27 hearing on the motion for a new trial. Cromwell has been sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence on those charges, Craighead said in a June 27 court notice.
Marshall started representing Cromwell after the February trial, and he is representing Cromwell on appeal.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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