TAMPA — One by one, witnesses told Tampa police the same story.
The Mustang and Altima drivers sped down Bayshore Boulevard on May 23, weaving in and out of traffic and revving engines. When a traffic light turned green they took off side-by-side and then leapfrogged ahead of each other on the busy thoroughfare.
Investigators say the Mustang was traveling at 102 miles per hour before its driver, 18-year-old Cameron Herrin, barreled into a woman and her 21-month old daughter as the mother pushed a stroller across the street.
But can police also prove that Herrin was jockeying for the lead in a spontaneous street race against his friend, 17-year-old John Barrineau?
Experts say doing so would go a long way toward helping prosecutors support vehicular homicide charges against the two teen drivers involved in the crash that killed Jessica Raubenolt, 24, and her daughter, Lillia. It would be vital to the misdemeanor street racing charge filed against Herrin's 20-year-old brother, Tristan, who was in the passenger seat.
The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office filed formal charges against the three on Wednesday, charging Barrineau as an adult. He was initially arrested as a juvenile.
Herrin and Barrineau each face two counts of vehicular homicide and street racing. None has prior criminal charges, or even a prior speeding ticket.
"The racing is a big part of the case," said Tampa criminal defense attorney Ty Trayner, an expert in traffic law. "It's the racing charge that gets the other two men involved, and it's the racing charge that elevates Cameron Herrin's charges to vehicular homicide."
Florida street racing statutes cast a wide net, but the charge is difficult to prove in court, Trayner said.
The law allows prosecutors to charge not only the drivers in a street race but also spectators, passengers in a racing vehicle, and "anyone who collects money, bets, coordinates or otherwise participates in a race."
There must be evidence that a race was pre-arranged or occurred as a competitive response to another driver.
"Speed calculations are often the centerpiece of contention in these cases," said Clearwater criminal defense attorney Stephen Romine.
Yet speed alone is not typically enough for a finding of reckless driving, a requirement in all vehicular homicide cases.
The law requires proof that a driver exhibited "willful or wanton disregard for the safety of others," he said.
Florida case law includes some appellate cases where courts have argued that "grossly excessive" speeding may be sufficient grounds for a reckless driving conviction. But those cases are uncommon. Most speeding charges are considered non-criminal civil infractions.
Unless an arresting officer actually witnessed a race, it's difficult for prosecutors to prove that a driver accepted a challenge and wittingly entered a "speed race," said Tampa police Cpl. Steven Cragg.
Instead, investigators must corroborate every fact in a witness' testimony by comparing it with accounts from other impartial witnesses, then test the plausibility of the accounts by reconstructing the racing event.
Officers seek evidence such as text messages, social media posts or other indicators that the driver acted out of a "competitive response," Cragg said.
The stakes are high.
Vehicular homicide is a second-degree felony. Convicted drivers face up to 15 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines. Even for a first offense in cases that don't result in a crash or property damage, a street racing conviction is punishable by up to 12 months in jail.
Police spokesman Steve Hegarty said Cragg and his squad have investigated 22 street racing cases in the past three years. Cragg said he has not seen many street racing convictions in his 20 years of overseeing efforts to curtail the dangerous pastime.
"I can't arrest someone for street racing just because a 911 caller said they were racing," Cragg said. "Unless they witnessed a race first hand, investigators have to work off probable cause and consider every possibility.
"What if the passenger facing a street racing charge was actually telling the driver to slow down? Or what if one driver didn't know the other was trying to match their speed?"
More often than not, prosecutors will shy away from street racing charges, Cragg said. Instead, they'll shore up evidence needed to prove lesser charges, like a civil infraction for speeding, or cut a plea deal.
If the State Attorney's Office can't prove the Bayshore crash resulted from a street race, prosecutors could pursue charges of negligent homicide or involuntary manslaughter, according to Stetson University College of Law professor Charles Rose.
Prosecutors are unlikely to convict the drivers of vehicular homicide without offering sufficient evidence of street racing, said Tampa criminal defense attorney Leslie M. Sammis.
"Not all tragedies end with felony convictions in a court of law," she said. "Some tragedies just don't fit the outlines of what can and can't be prosecuted."
The Herrins pleaded not guilty to the initial charges. It's unclear how Barrineau pleaded because his juvenile records are confidential. Prosecutors sought a warrant for his arrest on the adult charges. It's unclear when he will appear in circuit court.
Contact Anastasia Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adwsonwrites.
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