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Judge addresses controversial ruling

Posted on Wednesday, December 11, 2019 at 10:46 am

It was a long day in the Richmond County Circuit Court on Monday, December 2, and at the end of the day, Earl Cox and Carey Parker emerged acquitted on all charges. The two had both been charged with not reporting an accident to the police, and Cox had also been charged with involuntary manslaughter. The case had long been cold, though not forgotten, having stemmed from an incident on the 1st of March, 2008, and the two had been indicted by a grand jury that looked through evidence and testimony for 18 months.

Emma Jane Johnson was supposed to catch a charter bus driven by Cox at Lyell’s Corner at 4 in the morning and meet her daughter, Coretta Morris, in Richmond along with several other passengers for a bus trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey. When Cox arrived in Richmond, however, Johnson was not on the bus, and according to him, he had never seen her at the stop.

It was only a few hours later that her body was discovered a mile up Route 3 from Lyell’s Corner. She was dead from what was later ruled as blunt force trauma. Johnson’s possessions had been scattered around her body, though not too far out. It was around 7 that Master Trooper Moody of the Virginia State Police arrived and took control of the investigation. Mr. Crawley, Johnson’s boyfriend at the time, was cleared pretty quickly after his vehicle was checked.

It was later that a special grand jury was convened, indicting Cox and Parker after 18 months of deliberations. The main hurdle that had to be overcome was the age of the case, as well as the fact that it had happened so early in the morning, when hardly anybody is up and about.

The main body of questioning lay with Master Trooper Moody of the Virginia State Police, who was at the scene back in 2008. Moody, who had never let up on the case while he had it, went into exhaustive detail on what had happened, what had been found, and what had not, including testifying that the scattered possessions should have been much further out if Johnson were the victim of a high-speed impact, as well as looking into not just the bus, but also the vehicles that had been operated by Crawley.

During the trial, one of Cox and Parker’s attorneys, Thomas Norment Jr. repeatedly brought up what he characterized as a lack of evidence that pointed to Cox and Parker, as well as a lack of anything tying Johnson to Lyell’s Corner. The fact that there were so many unknown factors in the case played a key role in the defense laid out by attorneys, Norment and Harvey Latney Jr.

“There are no eyewitnesses, no secondary witnesses, no forensic evidence, and no physical evidence,” Norment stated during the opening portion of the bench trial. “It’s nothing but speculations and assumptions.”

The case against Cox and Parker was significantly weakened when former Deputy Sciesvater had backtracked on the source of a set of statements that had been with Master Trooper Moody back when the case was still fresh. Originally, the statement had been attributed to Cox, and it was that he had driven the bus through the Lyell’s Corner parking lot while looking for Ms. Johnson. This would have placed him on the scene. At the last minute, Sciesvater changed his mind on who had made the statement, attributing it to someone other than Cox, which got a pillar of the case thrown out as hearsay.

In the end, Judge McKenny ruled in favor of Cox and Parker, acquitting both of them on all charges, but had plenty to say in the closing remarks praising all involved in the investigation.

“The challenge in this case is there are a handful of known facts and a lot of unknowns,” the judge stated. “We know that on the date in question, Ms. Johnson was scheduled to go on a bus trip to Atlantic City that had been organized by her daughter, Ms. Morris, and that she planned to be at Lyell’s Corner around 4 a.m., where she’d be picked up by Mr. Cox. The evidence suggests that Cox was driving the bus that day and that Mr. Parker was a passenger from the start of the trip.

“The medical examiner’s report indicates that Ms. Johnson died as a result of blunt force trauma of a significant magnitude which resulted in crushing her organs, the diaphragm on both the right and left, and abrasions and evidence of breaking bones. It’s known that she was found about a mile from Lyell’s Corner towards Montross.”

Judge McKenney continued: “It’s later that it starts to get confused. We want to believe that, and I’m sure the family wants to believe that Ms. Johnson got to Lyell’s Corner, but there’s no evidence that she did.”

Judge McKenny also had plenty of praise for Master Trooper Moody. “He did everything that could possibly be done to carry out the investigation. I thought his testimony today was truthful, and that his commitment to this investigation was obvious and clear. It’s one of those cases where the pieces never sort of fell into place, never got a break. Special Agent Spears is there with a flashlight; they are going through the bus. They have a search warrant for the bus; they bring it over, and find nothing.

“There is an exchange between Mr. Cox and the investigators,” the judge continued. “Trooper Moody said Cox turns irate. Investigator Spears, with the passage of years, doesn’t quite remember it becoming that way. Not threatening in any kind of way, maybe a little more uncooperative, but not significantly so.

“He’s surprised that Mr. Cox voluntarily opens the luggage doors when he hadn’t asked to, doesn’t recall the statement that Trooper Moody remembers being made by Cox.”

The statement, which Moody attributed to Cox, was “You think I did this? You think I put her body in here and dumped it up the road?”

“He thinks that after he hears it, that Cox has just told them how he did it, but an analysis of the bins reveals nothing indicating the presence of any human material. In fact, what is gathered and submitted to the lab is not related to Ms. Johnson, nor any other human being.

“Both defense counsel talk about how this is an unusual case. I think this is a case that demonstrates a big difference between the standards that we talk about often, but aren’t as clearly delineated as this case demonstrates them to be. This is a case where there is a ton of probable cause, and the Commonwealth has done an outstanding job in trying to put together the pieces that reached that standard. If this were a preliminary hearing, this case would have been certified. Did a crime probably happen or are the defendants probably responsible, I think you could reach that conclusion. I understand that the defense would argue against it. But that’s a decision that the Court can plausibly make.

“Thinking forward to the next motion, beyond a reasonable doubt, without the court asserting itself to provide evidence that is not available, we never reached that point. The Commonwealth carries the burden in every case to demonstrate that it has eliminated every plausible theory of innocence.”

He continues: “Items could have been picked up or spread around before the cops arrived.

“There’s been much about the size of the debris field. It’s clear from its size, as well as Trooper Moody’s near-expert testimony on the results of when a person is struck by an automobile (Trooper Moody had taken multiple courses in crash site reconstruction), that this was not the result of a high-speed crash, but there’s no physical evidence to indicate that this happened at Lyell’s Corner.

“There’s nothing to have prevented some other operator of a vehicle of a heavy capacity, such as a tractor-trailer traveling at 5 or 7 miles an hour down Route 3, from having been the culprit that killed Ms. Johnson. These cases are sad; sad because a family member has been lost and because answers cannot be provided.

“The Court’s responsibility, even in tragedy, cannot be to supplant or substitute or pry evidence to fill existing gaps in concluding the story of the death of Ms. Johnson. Analyzing the evidence in that, the Court would note that the Commonwealth had two things to prove.  The first would be to prove Mr. Cox responsible for the involuntary death of Ms. Johnson as a result of an improper or illegal act. Upon establishing that an accident happened, that Mr. Cox was responsible, then he could be held responsible for what is typically called a ‘hit and run.’ Mr. Parker could be held responsible for not reporting an accident, even accepting Mr. Latney’s note that there is no evidence whether a report was or was not made.

“But to get to that, first you have to establish that this accident occurred. Even the evidence most favorable to the Commonwealth, the court finds that the burden was not met.”

Upon finishing his statement, McKenny struck out the charges and entered the acquittal orders, giving one last nod to the work that had gone into the case.

“Be sure to thank Counsel for the hard work that went into this, along with the law enforcement officers.”