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Lawsuit over teen's death could hinge on the tale of a tape

A self-portrait of Miles White hangs in the living room of the Polk County home of his parents, Gary and Jamie White. Miles White, left, was killed in a 2002 Polk County car crash, which his parents say was caused by a sheriff’s deputy bumping his car.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times (2008)

A self-portrait of Miles White hangs in the living room of the Polk County home of his parents, Gary and Jamie White. Miles White, left, was killed in a 2002 Polk County car crash, which his parents say was caused by a sheriff’s deputy bumping his car.

MIAMI — Nine years ago, law enforcement officials in Polk County declared the death of Miles White, 16, a tragic accident caused by the driver of the car in which he was a passenger.

But White's parents never budged from their contention that he died because of a police chase, and they sued the Polk County Sheriff's Office for the wrongful death of their son.

Their case goes to trial later this month. Key to it is an accident reconstruction engineer who has examined the evidence and concluded that the Whites are right.

Yet Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials who investigated the crash interviewed the engineer and insist he said his opinion about the cause of the crash might change, if he had more information.

Not so, says accident reconstruction engineer Miles Moss.

"The FDLE report did not accurately reflect the information I provided to them," he said Tuesday.

Responded FDLE public information officer Keith Kameg: "The report accurately depicts the statements made to our investigators."

Who's right? It may come down to a tale of a tape, because the interview was recorded.

Last week, the Polk County Sheriff's Office sent a lawyer to Miami to question Moss.

J.P. James asked Moss what his opinion was based on.

"The physical evidence," Moss said.

• • •

On May 31, 2002, Scott Lawson, a Polk County deputy, chased two teens in an unmarked car for more than 15 miles at speeds averaging 105 miles per hour. Lawson never activated his flashing lights or siren.

Driver Adam Jacoby, then 18, said he and Miles White were terrified, thinking they were being chased by a guy who wanted to fight at a party they had just left. The next thing he knew, Jacoby said, he was waking up in a hospital. He did not recall the car leaving the road and crashing into trees, killing White.

A few weeks after the accident, Lawson was arrested for sexual battery involving 16 teen boys.

But all that had nothing to do with Lawson pursuing Jacoby's car, which crashed because Jacoby lost control at the wheel, the Sheriff's Office said.

Polk County prosecutors pressed charges against Jacoby, who, even though he couldn't remember his car leaving the roadway, took a plea agreement on a manslaughter charge and got probation.

Moss, an accident reconstruction expert for more than three decades, was asked by the St. Petersburg Times about the case for a series of articles in 2008. He studied diagrams and photographs made by the Sheriff's Office and concluded that tire marks on the shoulder of the road showed that Jacoby successfully negotiated the curve.

By looking at aerial photos of the roadway and where the tire marks were, Moss calculated that the teen's car went 92 feet past the curve before going off the road and into a counterclockwise spin on the shoulder.

Further, photos of the crashed vehicle showed something struck the rear shock absorber on the driver's side, which along with the position of the tire marks, led Moss to conclude that Jacoby's car had been hit from behind, forcing it off the road.

At the moment of the crash, Lawson who had been reporting his chase to a dispatcher, yelled "oops" into his car radio. Then: "They just Signal 4'd," using the Sheriff's Office code for "crashed."

After the Times articles appeared and the Whites wrote to the Governor's Office, then-Gov. Charlie Crist asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate.

After 16 months, FDLE inspector Ed Fortune released an eight-page report supporting the Sheriff's Office conclusion that Jacoby was entirely to blame.

Fortune wrote that Moss said "that his opinions of the traffic crash could change if he were to view all of the photographs and actually inspect the vehicle."

(The report did not mention that the Polk County Sheriff's Office refused requests from the Times to let Moss view the photographs and inspect Jacoby's vehicle.)

In an audio recording of Fortune's interview with Moss, Moss said that details might change if he had more access to evidence, but he stuck with his "overall conclusion" that Lawson caused the accident. (See accompanying box.)

"The summary in the report did not reflect what my conclusions were," Moss said Tuesday.

At the Miami deposition last week, the Sheriff's Office lawyer asked Moss about the FDLE report. Moss said his conclusions have always been the same.

"It was not a single-vehicle accident," Moss said under oath. "The counterclockwise rotation and tire marks are consistent with vehicle impact and losing control. … The police reports and conclusions are inconsistent with the physical evidence."

After the deposition, Moss said, "It shouldn't matter at trial what that FDLE report says. The facts are the facts."

Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com.

The FDLE interview in question

From the 2009 FDLE audio recording of Inspector Ed Fortune's interview with accident reconstruction engineer Miles Moss (Go to links.tampabay.com to hear more of the interview, and to see the Times special report on the case):

Fortune: If you were to take all of the photos and actually go and see the car, is it possible that your opinions could change?

Moss: Certainly it's possible that my opinions relating to each of these photos could change. … but I don't think it would change the overall conclusion.

Fortune: Which is?

Moss: That the physical evidence — not only of the path of the vehicle relative to the roadway but the damage to the vehicle — is consistent with it being struck by another vehicle.

Fortune: Okay.

Lawsuit over teen's death could hinge on the tale of a tape 07/05/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 23, 2014 1:39pm]
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