by April Scheinoha
On Wednesday, a Pennington County jury convicted a Thief River Falls man for his role in a 2015 head-on crash that killed his friend.
Scott Wayne Srnsky, 42, Thief River Falls, was convicted of felony criminal vehicular homicide. Jurors were also able to consider a lesser included offense of careless driving. Jurors deliberated for about three-and-a-half hours before reaching their verdict. Sentencing has been set for Monday, Sept. 19.
Jacob James Kasprowicz, 29, Warren, was killed in the May 26, 2015, crash along 190th Street Northeast, a couple of miles northwest of the city of Thief River Falls.
The jury trial began with the state presenting its case Tuesday. The defense presented its case Wednesday. Srnsky didn’t testify in his own defense.
Jurors heard testimony from two crash reconstructionists who gave opposing testimony as to which driver crossed into the opposing lane of traffic. They also heard testimony that Srnsky told a Grand Forks, N.D., police sergeant that he was playing chicken with Kasprowicz at the time of the crash.
At the time of the accident, Srnsky was driving a 2000 Chevy Silverado westbound on 190th Street Northeast in ideal weather conditions. Kasprowicz was driving an eastbound 1999 Pontiac Grand Am. The vehicles collided head-on on the southern edge of the eastbound lane. The vehicles then caught fire. Srnsky was injured in the crash. No one witnessed the accident.
After the crash, law enforcement obtained a search warrant for the event data recorders located in both vehicles. EDRs are similar to black boxes found in airplanes. Sgt. David Eischens testified that a qualified Minnesota State Patrol trooper in St. Paul downloaded the EDR information and emailed it to him. He indicated that he isn’t trained to analyze such data.
Using the emailed information and evidence available at the scene, Eischens said he came to the conclusion that Srnsky was traveling westbound in the eastbound lane. He indicated that Kasprowicz was traveling eastbound in the eastbound lane. Eischens testified that both drivers turned hard to try to avoid the collision. He said Kasprowicz turned right and Srnsky turned left.
Lauri Traub, one of two assistant public defenders representing Srnsky, questioned Eischens’ lack of advanced training, lack of accreditation and lack of membership in professional crash reconstructionist organizations. None of the above are required of Eischens; however, he is certified by the State Patrol. When asked, he testified that he had completed about 175 crash reconstructions since 1997.
Traub noted that Eischens didn’t look at what had happened prior to the crash. Specifically, she noted that Eischens hadn’t looked farther than the marks left by the vehicles on the roadway. When pressed as to why his report didn’t include that information, Eischens replied that he used the evidence he had.
Eischens had earlier admitted that he had inaccurately interpreted some of the crash data. In particular, that data related to the speed of Kasprowicz’s vehicle at the time of the crash.
Jurors also heard from Greg Gravesen, a private crash reconstructionist hired by the defense. He testified about his extensive résumé, which included published work and teaching in the crash reconstruction field. Gravesen has worked in the field for 24 years, including while he was employed as a St. Paul police sergeant.
Gravesen testified that Eischens’ accident reconstruction was incomplete. He noted that Eischens didn’t look at what had happened prior to the crash.
Gravesen testified that Kasprowicz, not Srnsky, was driving in the wrong lane at the time of the crash. However, like Eischens, he indicated that both drivers turned hard to try to avoid the collision.
Gravesen presented a computer simulation of how the crash may have happened. He testified the simulation used physics and mathematics to come to its conclusion.
Gravesen inputted data into the program, including such things as vehicle measurements, vehicle speed, tire marks, and the drivers’ perception response time. Using research regarding perceived hazards entering one’s lane of traffic, Gravesen estimated each driver had between 1.6 and 1.8 seconds, on average, to respond to the other driver.
Gravesen said he had no control over the outcome of the simulation, which ended similarly to how the crash ended. The simulated vehicles came to rest the same way the real vehicles did.
Steve Moeller, assistant Pennington County attorney, asked how Gravesen determined where to place the vehicles prior to the accident in the computer simulation. Gravesen replied that he placed the vehicles in a location using the physical evidence available to him.
Moeller also questioned Gravesen whether a motorist could perceive a hazard in their lane and not take evasive action. Gravesen replied yes.
A little more than a month after the accident, Sgt. Michael Jennings encountered Srnsky during a traffic stop in Grand Forks, N.D. Jennings testified that Srnsky was wearing a cast or brace on his leg. He needed a wheelchair to move around.
Srnsky explained the reason for his disability at the time. “Mr. Srnsky told me that he was playing chicken with his friend and that his friend died,” Jennings testified.
Pennington County Sheriff Ray Kuznia also testified. He was among the first law enforcement officers arriving at the scene. Both vehicles were engulfed in flames. Kuznia heard Srnsky screaming from a ditch. A passerby, Julie Skjerven, helped Srnsky move to that area. Realizing that Srnsky was still too close to the fire, Kuznia and Deputy Dave Olson pulled Srnsky farther from the flames.
Sgt. Chris Bjerken and Capt. Mike Wedin, both from the State Patrol, also testified about their observations upon arriving at the scene.
Earlier court action
In earlier court action, Judge Kurt Marben suppressed evidence gathered during a warrantless blood draw completed before Srnsky was airlifted to Fargo, N.D., after the crash. Methamphetamine was detected in that blood sample. At that time, Marben noted there was a compelling need for a trooper to obtain the sample and there was no time to obtain a warrant. However, he ruled that the trooper had no probable cause to believe that Srnsky was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Marben noted that there was no more reason to believe other factors, like mechanical failure or a medical emergency, led to the crash.
At that time, Marben also suppressed Srnsky’s medical records from May 26, 2015. He found there was insufficient basis for a search warrant and there was no probable cause. Marben noted the warrant failed to refer to a conversation between a trooper and a doctor about Srnsky saying he used alcohol before the crash.
As a result of those rulings, the state amended the criminal complaint from a criminal vehicular homicide charge involving meth to a criminal vehicular homicide charge involving gross negligence.
Prior to the trial, both sides filed motions related to whether the jury could hear evidence about Srnsky’s usage of meth. The state asked to be able to introduce evidence to that extent if the defense introduced evidence regarding Kasprowicz being under the influence or possessing meth.
The defense filed motions requesting that the jury not be allowed to hear such testimony regarding Srnsky, purported drug paraphernalia in his vehicle, or the status of his driving privileges.
No such testimony along either lines was offered at trial.