Robbie Stone could not hold back tears Friday as an Effingham County jury cleared him of charges that could have sent him to jail for 75 years.
Stone, now 21, was found guilty only of reckless driving and not guilty on two counts of vehicular homicide, three counts of serious injury by vehicle and one of weaving over a roadway for his role in a 2010 crash that killed two teenagers and injured Stone and three other people.
“He’s free. Give God the glory,” Stone’s mother said as she left the Effingham County Courthouse.
Stone lost control of a 2000 Chevrolet Tracker he was driving on Stillwell-Clyo Road around 3 a.m. on June 27, 2010, and all six passengers were ejected as the SUV flipped several times. Whitney Newman died at the scene and Neil Morgan died in the hospital three days later.
“That’s the biggest miscarriage of justice I’ve ever seen,” Newman’s father, Julian Oates, said after the verdict.
Assistant District Attorney Brian Deal also expressed his disappointment afterward, while Stone and his attorney, Michael Classens, declined comment to the media.
“I hope the verdict, such as it is,” Deal said, “when he gets sentenced, it will bring some closure to the victims’ families.”
Stone faced up to 75 years in jail had he been found guilty on all charges and served the sentences consecutively. Reckless driving is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum of 12 months in prison. Stone’s sentencing hearing will be on Thursday, and several members of Newman’s and Morgan’s families are expected to attend.
“We hope all the family members will come and make a statement as to what should happen with Mr. Stone in his sentencing,” Deal said.
The jury of seven men and five women took less than two hours to deliberate Friday afternoon following the two-day trial. Stone took the stand as the last defense witness before Judge John R. Turner gave the case to jurors.
Stone stated that he was the designated driver on the night of the accident and he “just wanted to get everyone home safe” from a party they had attended. Classens cited test results indicating that Stone had no alcohol or drugs in his system when the wreck happened.
Stone claimed that he lost control of the SUV because he was distracted by Morgan, who Stone said had been “drinking all day.” Stone and other survivors of the crash testified that Morgan was “acting up” in the passenger seat, including hanging out the window at one point.
“Out of nowhere, Neil stands up and lays on the windshield,” Stone said. “From the waist up, he was on the windshield. I had to grab him because he was going to roll off.”
It was at that point, Stone said — as he had only one hand on the steering wheel s he reached for Morgan — that the car began to swerve. He said he “tried to steer it back straight” but could not.
On cross-examination, Deal pointed out the three other survivors of the crash — Lindsey Buchanan, Amanda Duff and Kristin Westenbarger — all testified Stone did not stop the car to address Morgan’s behavior. He asked Stone why.
“I had no time,” Stone said. “My initial reaction was just to reach for Neil.”
That corroborated a statement Duff made on the witness stand. Duff, who was in the back seat of the SUV with the other three girls, said Stone’s driving “was fine” as the group left the party.
“As soon as Neil started trying to crawl out and things like that … That’s when we started swerving a little bit,” Duff testified. “It concerned all of us.”
Westenbarger’s story varied from Duff’s and Buchanan’s, in that she said she never saw Morgan hanging out the window — only that she recalled him “sitting on the side of the car, but I don’t remember it being for long.” She too said Stone’s driving was “OK at first,” but added that “after a while it kind of progressed from everybody cutting up to him doing the swervy back-and-forth trying to scare us, or whatever it was.”
Stone cried at one point on the stand, after Classens asked if the Morgan family blamed him for their son’s death. He said they did not, and they had received him with “open arms” at a memorial service for his friend.
“In fact,” Stone said, “the speaker at the memorial was trying to talk bad about me, and Neil’s brother stood up and said, ‘Look, man, you don’t say that about him.’ And then he walked me out.”
Georgia State Patrol investigators determined the accident was not caused by any mechanical defects with the SUV. However, Classens told the jury that the SUV Stone was driving had tires that were the wrong size and were over-inflated, the vehicle was carrying more weight than it was built for, and the Tracker was more prone to rollover accidents than any other vehicle manufactured in 2000.
“The allegation is that he purposefully did something for this to happen,” Classens said. “The truth is this was an accident caused by a number of factors.”