MONTPELIER — Vermont Supreme Court overturned the 2016 conviction of Michael Buxton, 37, of Chester, who appealed the jury’s verdict of criminal negligence in a fatal 2015 vehicle crash involving a pedestrian in Springfield.
A jury found Buxton guilty of negligent operation of a motor vehicle in connection with the death of Jordan Pfenning, 23, of Springfield.
According to the court summary, Pfenning was crossing Route 11, also known as Chester Road, at approximately 8:15 p.m. Nov. 9, 2015. Records indicate Pfenning was in a marked crosswalk in front of McDonald’s restaurant when struck by Buxton’s vehicle. Pfenning died two days later at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon as a result of his injuries.
Buxton acknowledged during the trial being at the stoplight heading west toward Chester, and attending to his car radio when the light turned green. In addition, Buxton’s car was traveling between 20-28 mph through the intersection when he struck Pfenning on the other side.
Evidence showed that Pfenning had alcohol in his system, wore dark clothing and did not appear to be paying attention to his surroundings, including the crossing signal reading “do not walk.”
Records stated that Buxton was not using a telephone at the time of incident, nor impaired by alcohol or chemicals. After hitting Pfenning, Buxton stopped immediately and appeared shaken and remorseful.
According to the court summary, the jury found Buxton guilty of negligence, citing evidence that Buxton had accelerated his vehicle through the intersection and had his attention on his car radio, whereas other drivers were able to see Pfenning in the road.
In appeal, Buxton’s defense argued that the court wrongfully denied the defendant’s pretrial motion to exclude the fact that the pedestrian died as a result of the vehicle crash. The defense argued that Pfenning’s death, while a consequence of the event, was not relevant evidence to the charge itself. The judge denied the motion at the time, saying that Pfenning’s death demonstrated the speed of the vehicle and force of the collision. In appeal Buxton’s defense attorney argued that Pfenning’s death may have influenced the jury’s verdict based not on evidence of the case but an emotional appeal.
The defense also said the court erred by allowing Pfenning’s father to testify, despite his father not being a witness to the event. The defense argued this was another example of making an emotional appeal to the jury in contrast to the case evidence.
In their decision, the appeal judges agreed with the defense, stating that the court should not have permitted Pfenning’s father to testify and abused its discretion by denying the defense’s motion to exclude Pfenning’s death from the evidence. Also, the appeals court found that Pfenning’s own behavior may have contributed to the collision, as well as a streetlight that was not in service at the time.
Buxton could not be reached for comment.