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Was justice 3rd victim in fatal accident?

Published Nov. 23, 2005

Nona A. Moore and her daughter Lindsey were driving home from a shopping trip four years ago when a truck struck and killed them.

Family members say they consider it a tragic accident.

But a jury decided it was a crime, convicting Jean Claude Meus, a Haitian immigrant, of two counts of vehicular homicide. A judge sent him to prison for 15 years.

Moore's family was stunned.

Now, in a remarkable twist, the family of the victims is fighting to free the man convicted of killing their loved ones.

In her sprawling, grade-school handwriting, 10-year-old Haley Moore, who survived the accident, told a judge: "I know my mom would not want Mr. Meus to go to prison that long. It was only an accident, and I'm not mad and will never be mad at Mr. Meus. Sincerely, Haley Moore."

Next to her words, she drew a flower.

Moore's sisters and surviving daughters, who are white, say they are convinced Meus' conviction was the result of an all-white jury in a small Florida town taking vengeance on a black man.

"Wauchula is a small town with lots of prejudice, biased opinions," Moore's sister, Dana Christenson, told the court during Meus' appeal. "I was born and raised there, so I know how things work. I believe the jury did what they thought Nona and her family would have wanted. Well, let me tell you, this is not what we want."

The case has gained attention amid two other recent high-profile fatal traffic accidents - Jennifer Porter and William Thornton IV. On Nov. 5, Porter was sentenced to house arrest and probation for leaving the scene of an accident that left two children dead in Tampa. On Sept. 16, Thornton was sentenced to 30 years in prison after killing a Citrus County couple.

At a recent meeting in Tampa, NAACP leaders questioned the fairness of all three cases. Porter is white, her victims black. Thornton and Meus are black, their victims white. All were first-time offenders. At the meeting, Meus' attorney John Trevena and other supporters said they feared Meus' skin color sealed his fate. The case has drawn attention from television personality Geraldo Rivera and the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network.

"It's about the mentality of Floridians," said the group's national youth director, the Rev. Jarrett B. Maupin II. "Is there a separate level of justice laid down for those of different skin color?"

A key difference between Meus and the other cases: His conviction - not his sentence - is the main issue. His sentence of 15 years is less than the 18.5 to 30 years called for by state law. But the racial disparity remains, his attorney and supporters say.

"This isn't just these cases, let's face it, most minorities don't have enough money to get a great lawyer. . . . Unless you have somebody that's standing up to make sure justice is served, it's not going to happen," said Rebecca Chenoweth, Meus' fiancee. "If it's in a small town like Jean Claude was, you might as well forget it."

The fatal accident happened about 9:30 p.m. May 11, 2001, at a fork in the road known as Seven Mile Point in Hardee County, a rural area of orange groves and farmland in south-central Florida.

Moore, a child care worker, was driving home to Wauchula from a shopping trip at the mall in nearby Sebring. Ashley, then 12, her oldest daughter, was sitting in the front in the family's minivan. Haley and Lindsey were in the back.

At an intersection, a semitrailer truck appeared, Ashley recalls. Her mother screamed. Horns beeped. The truck tipped over, crushing the van the beneath it.

Moore and Lindsey were killed instantly, Christenson said.

Ashley yelled for help. Meus says he got out of the cab and peered into the van. He could see Ashley. She asked him if she was going to die.

Meus' truck had been packed with tomatoes earlier that day in Immokalee. Passers-by scooped buckets of tomatoes, tossing them on the ground, hoping to lighten the load, Christenson said.

Ashley remembers lying on the ground, surrounded by ants and tomatoes, as she waited to be taken to a hospital.

State troopers put Meus in the back of a patrol car. As they processed the accident scene for several hours, they returned to check on Meus and found him asleep. Troopers said they had to knock on the window several times to wake him.

Prosecutors filed charges against Meus more than a year later, accusing him of recklessly falling asleep behind the wheel - his driving log suggested he had been behind the wheel too long - and speeding.

It took the jury less than an hour to find him guilty on both counts.

Meus appealed. As the case wound its way through the appeal court, Moore's daughters and sisters began working for his freedom. Christenson filed a victim impact statement with the court saying Meus did nothing wrong, that he misunderstood some of the troopers' questions at the scene of the accident because of a "language barrier."

But the 2nd District Court of Appeal denied the appeal in September 2004 and last March, Circuit Judge Charles B. Curry ruled he wouldn't trim Meus' sentence.

Trevena is now preparing a motion for post-conviction relief, raising several issues. Among them: statements one of the jurors made to a television reporter, saying that the prosecution didn't prove Meus fell asleep, but the jury convicted him anyway because two people were dead.

Another juror told attorneys she believed every accident involving a fatality should be charged as a crime. Other concerns include: There were no blacks in the jury pool; no physician testified whether a head injury sustained in the crash caused Meus to mimic symptoms of sleepiness; he wasn't charged until 15 months after the accident; and the defense attorney didn't call many mitigation witnesses at the sentencing, including Moore's daughters.

Meus also plans to ask Gov. Jeb Bush for executive clemency.

Prosecutors had enough information to charge Meus with the crime, said Chip Thullbery, spokesman for the 10th Judicial Circuit State Attorney's Office. He said sentencing guidelines for vehicular homicide have increased sharply over time. That's the Legislature's doing, not prosecutors', he said.

Moore's husband, Darrell, said he agrees with prosecutors. His wife's death destroyed his family, he said. A rift remains. The girls now live with their aunt Beth Jahna in a large, antebellum-style home a few miles from the accident site.

Darrell Moore has sued the company that packed Meus' truck with tomatoes. But he said he also feels Meus should be held responsible.

"He went through an intersection," he said. "I heard him say on television that he was trying to avoid another car. That's just not true. I feel he's responsible, I really do. I don't think it's an issue of color, I really don't."

His oldest daughter, now 16, disagrees.

"We want to help him," Ashley said.

Her aunt, sitting nearby, nodded.

"We won't stop until he gets out," Christenson said.Abbie VanSickle can be reached at (352) 860-7312 or vansicklesptimes.com.