The defense for a Sonora doctor accused of causing a 2016 triple-fatal collision on J-59 called one witness to the stand Thursday morning.
Christina Hodge, 33, a Merced-area resident and a housekeeper at the Inns of California in Sonora, testified she saw a vehicle traveling southbound cause the fatal collision when it crossed over the double-yellow lines to pass other drivers.
Her testimony was the opposite of what multiple prosecution eyewitnesses said over the previous five days of the trial.
The defendant, Danny Anderson, grasped his chin and stared at Hodge as she testified. Dozens of his family and friends packed the rows behind him, and most beamed as Hodge spoke.
Hodge said she was driving her Volvo sedan from the Mono Way Veterinary to hospital to her home in the Merced area after putting her dog down earlier that day.
After traveling southbound for about 35 minutes, Hodge said she noticed in her rearview mirror a vehicle crossing over the double-yellow lines to pass the cars behind her.
“It happens a lot on that road, all the time,” she said.
Hodge was driving about 55 to 60 miles per hour behind a “light-colored SUV” traveling 68 to 70 miles per hour when the passing car maneuvered around them both, she said.
She watched a female driver make “hand movements,” suggesting she was talking while driving, and a man in the vehicle just before the crash.
“A car just passed me, but after that the car in front of me swerved into the lane going northbound,” she said. “It happened so fast the vehicle in front of me hit the northbound car.”
The light-colored SUV in front of her swerved, but only traveled about a foot or two over the fog line onto the gravel shoulder, she said. The vehicle continued into the northbound lane, where it crashed into another vehicle “corner to corner” on the passenger sides.
She watched as both vehicles “spun,” hit each other again, and were “rolling from top to bottom,” she testified.
Under questioning from District Attorney Laura Krieg, Hodge said she could not remember the make, model or color of the car that passed her.
The only thing she was sure of, she added, was that the car passed by “quickly.”
Krieg sought to undermine Hodge’s credibility due to her omissions of certain facts of the case testified to by other accident witnesses. California Highway Patrol Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team officer Robert Shaw was recalled to the witness stand to rebut Hodges following her testimony Thursday morning, and said the physical evidence and eyewitness testimony made no indication of a passing southbound vehicle.
“If there was a vehicle there it would have hit Mr. Anderson’s vehicle or the gray van that was there,” Shaw said.
Anderson’s attorney, Tom Johnson, accused Shaw and the CHP of purposefully ignoring Hodge’s claims to protect the integrity of a preconceived account of the collision.
“You guys found a story and a narrative about the accident before ever talking to her,” Johnson said.
“Her statement didn’t really make any sense,” Shaw responded.
Krieg also noted several inconsistencies between Hodge’s statement to a defense counsel investigator in June 2017 and her statements before the jury, including whether her Volvo sedan was a 1991 or 1999 model, or whether her bank at the time was Bank of America or Wells Fargo.
Hodge was also unable to point out where her vehicle was passed on an aerial image provided by the defense of the La Grange Road area where the accident occured.
Though at first she indicated to Johnson that the crash was almost instantaneous, she later told Krieg, “I was passed and then a couple minutes later there was an accident.”
Multiple accident witnesses called by the prosecution who were driving southbound before the accident, including George Perez, who made the first recorded emergency call of the accident, Pepito Zamaripa, a Merced resident working as a union electrician on the Tuolumne County Juvenile Detention Facility, and Joseph and Shaunna Hoffman, Sonora nurses unrelated to the victims, said they saw a massive plume of dust rise to the sky following the accident.
Hodge did not. None of them testified to seeing a vehicle cross over the double-yellow lines to pass southbound vehicles.
Some of Hodge’s recollection was consistent with the other claims. She remembered seeing the body of a small woman on the ground at the accident scene after she “jumped” out of her vehicle. She talked to a woman in the driver’s seat of a car involved in the collision and saw a severely injured man beside her in the passenger seat, she said.
During the collision, a 2002 Lexus RX300 driven by Trista Hoffman, 16, crashed head-on with a 2009 Toyota Camry driven by Dorothy Eisemann, 68. Trista Hoffman and her mother, Tina Hoffman, 51, the passenger in the Lexus, were pronounced dead at the scene.
Tina Hoffman was ejected as the Lexus rolled across the northbound lane, and the front passenger side door was torn off. Passengers in the back seat of the Lexus were Dillon Hoffman, 17, who sustained two broken legs, and Annie Johnson, 16, who sustained brain hemorrhages. Reinholt John Eisemann, 72, a passenger in the Camry, died after the collision.
Hodge never spoke to CHP officers or emergency officials at the scene, but made a 911 call from the hacienda at Lake Don Pedro and later that day from her mother’s house in La Grange.
Krieg questioned her about her statement recorded in the CHP call log about her seeing a juvenile pedestrian in the road that caused the accident.
“I was pretty freaked out, so I probably speculated with that,” Hodge said.
Shaw also countered Johnson’s claim that the “limited” MAIT report completed by the CHP was insufficient, because 95 to 88 percent of the MAIT reports were limited, he said.
Krieg and Shaw also recreated a series of scenarios in the accident reconstruction which altered the speeds and distances separating the different vehicles, but noted the evidence still bore out the same result with Anderson’s Acura to blame.
“While there are some variables, it doesn’t change your ultimate conclusion in the case,” Krieg said.
After both parties rested their cases and the jury was dismissed, the respective lawyers deliberated over certain pieces of evidence that had not yet been approved by Judge Donald Segerstrom.
Among the evidence: photographed portraits of Tina and Trista Hoffman were denied, and a daily field record for CHP Officer Joelle McChesney on Feb. 16, 2017, which noted a meeting with the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office for three and a half hours, was included.
A more protracted debate was conducted over the possible inclusion of a defense-prepared transcript Hodge made with the investigator, but Segerstrom denied it due to the “huge risk the jury uses this for an improper purpose,” he said.
On Friday the lawyers will meet to discuss jury instructions. The trial will resume at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday in the Tuolumne County Superior Court for closing arguments.
Official arguments in the trial began on July 6 and have spanned about six days.
Twenty-three witnesses were called.
The prosecution called nine CHP officers involved in the investigation, one CHP dispatch employee, three survivors, two paramedics, a coroner, a toxicologist, and five witnesses to the crash or its aftermath.
In all, 115 pieces of evidence will be submitted to the jury during deliberations. As of Thursday, the jury is eight men and four women. Two female jurors were dismissed and replaced by two male alternates after the first day of trial. Four alternate jurors remain. Jury selection began on June 20 and lasted about five days.
Anderson has been charged with three felony counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence with enhancement charges of fleeing the scene, one count of hit-and-run resulting in death or serious injury of six people, one count of reckless driving causing specific injury or death for the three fatalities, and misdemeanors destroying or concealing evidence and obstructing a police investigation.
Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.