Widower’s emotional testimony marks first full day of Grace Wight negligent homicide trial
MANCHESTER – The defense attorney in the Grace Wight negligent homicide trial on Tuesday delivered a scathing assessment of investigators’ work on the fatal 2016 auto-pedestrian crash in Lyndeborough, and the widower of the victim recounted through tears the moment he learned she had died as the first day of testimony got underway in Hillsborough County Superior court North.
“Trooper Pelletier instructed the investigators to focus on texting as a cause of this accident, and the investigators did just that,” Attorney Jim Rosenberg told the jury in his opening statement Tuesday morning.
Rosenberg referred to State Trooper Michael Pelletier, who, he said, headed the investigation with the department’s Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Unit.
Pelletier “waited months to begin the accident reconstruction work, and he failed to talk to key witnesses in a timely manner – in some cases, not at all,” Rosenberg said.
“This is a broken investigation, riddled with holes. There are so many flaws in (Pelletier’s) work that it will be impossible for you to rely on anything that he has to say,” Rosenberg added, referring to if, and when, Pelletier is called to testify.
Wight, 19, was 17 and a rising senior at Wilton Lyndeborough Cooperative Senior High School at the time of the July 15, 2016, crash. The victim, Debess Rogers, 60, was walking to her home at 195 Mountain Road when the pickup truck Wight was driving struck and killed her near 1316 Center Road.
Wight, who lives at 265 Mountain Road, was indicted seven months after the crash on one count each of negligent homicide and reckless conduct involving a motor vehicle, both felonies, and one misdemeanor count of vehicular assault.
The felonies accuse Wight of “negligently causing the death” of Rogers by “recklessly” crossing into the opposite lane of Center Road and striking Rogers.
The misdemeanor charge alleges Wight “negligently caused the death of another” while driving a motor vehicle.
The trial, over which Judge Amy B. Messer is presiding, is scheduled to resume today. Testimony is expected to continue through this week and into next week.
Assistant County Attorney Alex S. Yiokarinis, who is prosecuting the case with Assistant County Attorney Patrick Ives, emphasized during his opening statement the state’s allegations that Wight struck Rogers, because her truck was in the opposite lane and she was driving way too fast for a narrow, winding road.
“The evidence you will hear in this case, and see in this case, indicates the defendant was entirely on the wrong side of the road, and was traveling approximately 64 mph in a posted 35 mph zone,” Yiokarinis told the jury, which is made up of nine men and five women.
He said the impact threw Rogers 24 feet from the road; the lantern she was carrying was found in the woods, some 79 feet away.
Rogers’ husband, Guntis Gravazs, was the first witness called to the stand. A soft-spoken man with a full beard, Gravazs told the court he and his late wife were high school sweethearts who celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary just a month before she was killed.
In direct questioning by Yiokarinis, Gravazs said he and his wife left for Lowell, Massachusetts, late the afternoon of July 14 to attend a concert by the band Los Lobos at Boarding House Park.
Gravazs, who won the tickets in a radio contest, said he began having trouble with his car as they neared the park, traced the problem to a bad tire and decided to change it after the concert.
But as they headed home, the car began overheating, forcing them to stop four times, he said. The car gave out for good on Forest Road, a little over three miles from their home, Gravazs said.
“I told Deb we should call our neighbors” to come get them, “but she said no, she didn’t want to wake them up.” So rather than wait for a tow truck, the couple grabbed a camping lantern from the car and set out on foot.
Gravazs, hobbled by a bad knee, stopped to rest; his wife, he said, agreed to continue walking home, get their other car and go pick him up.
“She’s in good shape … she walked a lot,” Gravazs said. He gave her the lantern – and a kiss.
“That’s the last time I saw her,” he added.
As he waited, Gravazs said a car went by, then moments later a dark pickup truck “went by me at a very fast rate of speed,” he said.
He noted the truck “was more on the wrong side of the road than on the right side,” he told the court. “I thought, the person driving that vehicle was totally out of control. …”
A truck with flashing emergency lights passed in the other direction. “I figured it was a volunteer firefighter going to the station … I thought the pickup went off the road,” he said.
When two State Police cruisers went by, Gravazs said he feared “something terrible had happened” somewhere up the road. He began walking that way, and soon came upon a sea of flashing lights.
“The police saw me, they came up and asked my name. I gave my name, and told them what happened with my car and that my wife was walking ahead.
“They asked my wife’s name. I told them. One of the officers said to me, ‘we’re very sorry to inform you that Debess Rogers is deceased,'” Gravazs said, his voice breaking.
“I felt like half of my soul left me. I leaned up against a truck and cried. I wanted to go to Debess but the police wouldn’t let me. So I sat there crying.”
Emotions ran high on both sides of the courtroom gallery as Gravazs testified, and rose again when Rosenberg played a segment of the 911 call Wight made at 2:28 a.m., some 11 minutes after she left a friend’s house in Greenfield and headed home.
Nearly two dozen family members and friends sat behind Wight, while several members of Rogers’ family sat with state victim’s advocate Merrill Beauchamp.
“I fell asleep at the wheel and just hit someone, please help,” Wight blurted to a 911 operator, her voice shaky and punctuated with sobs.
“I know she’s alive, I heard her … ,” Wight said as the operator asked for the exact address and other information.
“I was coming home from being with a friend,” Wight said next. “I woke up … I realized I hit someone.”
“That’s a portion of a longer 911 call you’ll hear later,” Rosenberg told the jury. In all, he said, Wight “said four times that she’d fallen asleep at the wheel.
“But Trooper Pelletier never mentioned that in his accident reconstruction report.
“Nobody ever asked if she fell asleep at the wheel,” he said.
Wight dabbed at tears as the recording played; several people seated behind her cried softly.
Rosenberg said a blood test showed that his client was “not impaired to any degree,” and that she willingly gave her cell phone to investigators.
“The problem is,” Rosenberg said, was that “Trooper Pelletier never bothered to look at Grace’s cell phone to determine the times” of text messages and phone calls. “If he’d even opened the Verizon cell records … they could have included valuable information.”
Pelletier, Rosenberg contended, “cobbled together a theory that Grace was texting and driving … he set out to prove she was distracted by that text,” he said, referring to a text message that Rosenberg said Wight sent to a friend just before she left the other friend’s house in Greenfield.
Reiterating his contention that Pelletier “didn’t look at the Verizon records,” Rosenberg said Pelletier “never bothered to give (the information) to any (other) investigators.”
“So, we did what the state failed to do,” Rosenberg told jurors. “We talked to an expert.
“You will hear from him.”