WAUCHULA — Volunteer firefighter Juan Otero and a friend, coming home from a day of fishing in 2001, saw the wrecked semitrailer truck, its load of tomatoes turning the ground red.
"Oh, my God, look what just happened," Otero said to his friend as they pulled over.
When the truck driver climbed from the cab, he told Otero someone had come in front of him. He said his head hurt.
Otero and the trucker both tried to help the mother and daughters trapped in the other vehicle.
Years later, watching television news, Otero was stunned that a jury had convicted the truck's driver. He'd been accused falling asleep at the wheel and killing Nona Moore, 40, and her 8-year-old daughter, Lindsey.
Otero hadn't even heard of the trucker's arrest. No one had interviewed him.
He got his day in court on Tuesday, when he told his account of the crash scene, contradicting the state's claim at trial that Jean Claude Meus, a Haitian immigrant, was asleep when his truck collided with the Moore family at a rural Hardee County intersection known as Seven Mile Point.
His testimony was allowed after an appeals court reviewed the case and claims by Meus' current attorney, John Trevena, that Meus' lawyer at the trial failed to present a full defense by neglecting to contact all the witnesses, including Otero.
The five-hour hearing ended without a ruling from county Judge Jeff McKibben, who could clear the way for a new trial for Meus. The judge gave no time frame for a decision.
About 20 people came to the hearing, many of them relatives of Meus or the victims. Unlike many trials, though, they all sat together. Both Meus' family and friends and the sisters of Nona Moore have been working for years to try and get Meus a new trial.
Assistant State Attorney Victoria Avalon told the court a new trial is not necessary, because Otero's testimony would not have changed the outcome.
Trevena argued that the state's entire case at trial was based on Meus falling asleep at the wheel. If a jury had heard Otero's testimony, it would have changed everything, Trevena said.
"I would ask this court to please right a wrong," he said.
Meus' case garnered attention in the Tampa Bay area when NAACP leaders used it as an example of what they viewed as racial disparities in the criminal justice system. They compared the case of Meus, who is black and a Haitian immigrant, with that of Jennifer Porter, a white former Tampa teacher who admitted her involvement in a fatal crash that left two small children dead and pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident involving death, but received no time in jail or prison. The two people who died in the Meus case were white, the two who died in the Porter case were black.
Back in 2001, Otero was a volunteer firefighter for the Zolfo Springs Fire Department. He had basic firefighting training and had been to more than 100 car crashes.
He said he stopped immediately to help because it was a bad crash. A few bystanders had stopped, too, but no other emergency personnel were on scene, he said. He testified that Meus told him, in broken English, that someone had come in front of him.
"He wanted to help," Otero said of Meus.
"Did you observe any indication that he was tired or had fallen asleep?" Trevena asked.
"No, sir," Otero said.
Only after the engine was turned off in the truck did Otero hear the cries of the children trapped in Moore's vehicle. His attention quickly shifted to them until more emergency crews arrived. After the crash, Otero said he never learned what had happened to the truck driver. Otero had no idea that Meus was serving a 15-year prison sentence for the crash until he saw the television report by WTVT-Ch. 13, which did a series of stories on the case.
Otero called the station and told his story.
Rusty Franklin, the Polk County attorney who represented Meus at the trial, also testified in court. An experienced criminal defense attorney, he said he felt he did a good job representing Meus. Franklin didn't interview Otero because he was given a list of dozens of emergency personnel called to the scene and was not told that Otero had been the first to speak with Meus, Franklin testified.
He told the court he firmly believed Meus was innocent.
"I believed … that what happened out there was an accident," Franklin said.
Witnesses for the prosecution, which included law enforcement officers for the local fire department and the Florida Highway Patrol, showed the judge diagrams of the crash site and explained that they believed Meus had fallen asleep. Polk County Medical Examiner Stephen Nelson also testified that after a traumatic event, even if someone has been asleep, he could appear quite alert because of the rush of adrenalin.
Assistant State Attorney Avalon also implied that Otero may have negative motives for coming forward. After Otero said he hasn't had alcohol since 2000, Avalon brought forth an state trooper who said he thought he may have smelled alcohol on Otero's breath in 2001.
"Is Mr. Otero trustworthy? Was he honest with us about his alcohol use?" she said.
Trevena responded by saying that Otero had been placed on the state's witness list before the trial. It was the defense attorney who never interviewed him. He also raised questions about the trooper's testimony, questioning how well the trooper knew Otero since the trooper twice misstated Otero's last name, once referring to him at "Mr. Ortega."
Abbie VanSickle can be reached at email@example.com or 813-226-3373.