Felony convictions overturned in deadly boat crash

Winston Wood
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The Indiana Court of Appeals overturned two felony convictions for a teenager accused of leaving the scene of a deadly 2010 boat crash on Lake Monroe.

The judges said two of Winston Wood's convictions subjected him to double jeopardy.  The judges also took the extra steps of questioning the law under which Wood was convicted and suggesting that state lawmakers should consider changing it.

Wood was 19 in June 2010, when his speedboat collided with another boat carrying a couple and their three grandsons.  Susan Collier and her grandson, Gage Pruett, died.  James Collier, who was driving the second boat, suffered a serious cut to the leg. 

Jurors convicted Wood of two counts of Class C felony leaving the scene of a boating accident resulting in death and one count of Class D felony leaving the scene of a boating accident resulting in serious bodily injury.  Wood was fined and sentenced to six years for each of the C felonies and three years for the D felony, to be served concurrently. 

Wood appealed, claiming the "three convictions subjected him to double jeopardy because each conviction arose out of the same acting of leaving the scene of a boating accident…" The judges agreed, vacated two of the sentences and ordered that he be refunded the fines for the overturned convictions.

The judges denied Wood's appeal on two other grounds related to a speedy trial and whether the state presented sufficient evidence in his case.

On the evening of June 28, 2010, Wood and two friends were wakeboarding behind a speedboat on Lake Monroe. James Collier and his family were on the water in a fishing boat. Investigators with the Department of Natural Resources determined the accident resulted from "inattention by both operators."  Wood's boat went over the top of Collier's.

Susan was killed and thrown from the boat. James was injured and thrown from the boat. Pruett was killed but remained in the boat, along with the two other boys who were not hurt. No one on Wood's boat or those who were wakeboarding behind it were hurt.

Wood told police he dove into the water to help but panicked and "freaked out." Wood told officers he returned to his boat to try to get professional help. 

About six minutes later, Wood's friend called 911.  When the young men arrived at the shore, they followed the 911 operators' instructions to wait for officers.  They remained at the marina about an hour and a half for police to arrive.

After the crash, Collier says he swam to his wife and determined she was dead. When he returned to the boat, he covered his grandson's body. 

Collier says he yelled for help but didn't get any response from the other boaters. Two of the young men testified they never heard him calling. Collier says before Wood left the scene, Wood said, "[You] save her yourself." Collier eventually got his boat back to shore using his trolling motor.

Wood testified that he thought his boat was damaged and taking on water, which factored in to his decision to return to shore.

The judges note that much of Wood's convictions rested on the fact that he left the immediate scene of the crash without providing Collier and each person on the other boat information to identify himself, the boat and the boat's owner.

It is that portion of Indiana Code 14-15-4 that troubles the judges. They say this case brings to light "serious concerns about the statute that criminalizes Wood's behavior." 

In particular, they are concerned with the notification requirement as it applies to people who are involved in a boating accident as they deal with the inherent dangers of being on the water.

In the majority opinion, the judges wrote, "This statue permits no consideration of what is reasonable in any given emergency situation; nor does it permit citizens to engage in any balancing of considerations that arise in typical emergencies and are likely required by other statutes." 

The judges point out that Wood did stop at the scene and that for him to delay getting help to Collier and the other victims in order to provide his name and address and boat owner's name and address would have been "ill-advised." 

They also point out that complying with the notification section of IC 14-15-4 may sometimes force a person to violate another law.  In this case, they say Wood also faced a statutory duty to take reasonable care of the people on his boat.

The judges note that most states have written laws to acknowledge that a boat operator often has competing responsibilities to his passengers and people in other boats.  Those laws, they say, require the operator to offer assistance if he can do so without serious danger to his own vessel and people and as is "practicable" and necessary to save them from or minimize danger.

One judge, James Kirsch, wrote a separate opinion and goes so far as to call part of the law "unconstitutional" as it applies to this situation.  He writes, "The statute did not give Wood fair notice that it was forbidden conduct to leave the scene of the accident even if Wood feared for his safety or that of his passengers and that necessity demanded that he leave the immediate accident scene."

The case now returns to a Monroe County court.