SMETHPORT, Pa. — The criminal case against Daniel Oaks II, who faces charges stemming from a 2018 fatal accident in Duke Center, is in the hands of a jury.
On Wednesday in McKean County Court, the defense wrapped up its case, and both defense attorney Anthony Clarke and District Attorney Stephanie Vettenburg-Shaffer gave closing arguments.
Oaks, 34, was the driver in a one-vehicle crash on Sept. 8, 2018, in Duke Center. He is facing charges including homicide by vehicle, involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault by vehicle.
Oaks’ girlfriend, Alyssa Hawk, 28, was killed in the crash, and Oaks, along with three bystanders — Cody and Sam Pearce and Justin McDivitt — suffered serious injuries.
Investigators have said it was the speed of the car, which was estimated at 88 mph, that caused the injuries and damage.
The jury deliberated from about 3:30 p.m. to about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday before President Judge John Pavlock dismissed them, to return and continue deliberations today.
Beginning just after lunch, Clarke presented his closing argument first, continuing the theme of last week’s opening argument given by co-counsel Casey Graffius, who promised jurors they would hear the rest of the story of the crash.
That rest of the story, Clarke said, involved a broken ball joint in Oaks’ sports car, a Subaru WRX, which the defense argued caused the car to go out of control in the first place.
“The Commonwealth says the accident was caused by speeding,” Clarke said. From the evidence presented, the attorney argued, the prosecution’s theory of the case is that Oaks was driving on a flat, dry road when for “no earthly reason,” he steered sharply to the left, causing the fatal crash.
Defense expert Marcus Mazza testified that it was “pretty likely the ball joint failed,” Clarke said. “There’s physical evidence to support this.”
He showed a picture of the car’s right front wheel, which had a bent area in the rim and a gouge taken out of the tire. The left front wheel had “catastrophic damage to the support structures,” Clarke said. “Suspension components are pretty burly pieces” and don’t break easily.
“That wheel came dislodged at the beginning of the crash sequence,” he told the jury. “Sometimes, bad things happen.”
He showed the jury a ball joint, and said, “If they break, you lose steering. This part broke. He lost control of the car.
“He was going too fast. He was. He shouldn’t have been.”
However, Clarke said, “We didn’t hear any testimony of him driving recklessly. He was accelerating quickly in a high performance sports car. Was driving too fast in that car inherently dangerous? But for this ball joint breaking, we wouldn’t be sitting here today. If that’s the case, you must acquit.”
He reminded the jurors that emotion had no part in the verdict, but that reason and logic did.
In her closing argument, the district attorney said the evidence didn’t show a mechanical failure in the car prior to the accident. Instead, it showed that Oaks’ car was traveling 88 mph when it drifted to the right, near a deep ditch, and he attempted to correct by steering to the left. However, at the speed his car was traveling, he overcorrected, causing the accident, she said.
The victims, Cody and Sam Pearce and McDivitt, were in a yard beside the road. “They heard this defendant coming. There was no time for the three of them to escape. He was driving at an excessive — some might say obscene — rate of speed.”
Describing the Duke Center neighborhood where the accident occurred, Shaffer said, “Their houses are close to the road. Almost every home has a porch.” There are no guide rails, and the lanes are narrower than would be on a highway. “There’s a reason it’s 35 mph; 88 mph was more than double the speed limit. He was going too fast.”
Another witness, Les Myers, thought police must have been chasing the car because of how fast it was traveling.
Oaks’ car struck a pickup truck — a full-size Dodge Ram owned by Scott Nickerson — which caused the truck to rotate, hitting a porch and three men.
“The men went flying,” Shaffer said.
Witnesses testified that they heard the car speeding, and heard the impact when the car crashed. “Nobody heard any metal components whipping inside the vehicle because it didn’t occur,” she said.
Referring to the accident’s aftermath, Shaffer said, “One of the witnesses described it as carnage.”
Shaffer described the injuries to the victims, and the amount of recovery time for them. Shaffer also mentioned the injuries to Alyssa Hawk, who was seatbelted into the car and had to be cut free by first responders. She died from blunt force trauma, the prosecutor said.
Shaffer talked about the investigation, saying that the Commonwealth’s expert, Cpl. David Kostok, who was the state police accident reconstructionist, was the only person who was at the scene doing the investigating after the crash. Mazza wasn’t. And Kostok saw no sign of a mechanical failure like a broken ball joint, which would have left grease everywhere. There wasn’t, Shaffer said.
The damage to which the defense referred, she said, came when Oaks’ car hit Nickerson’s truck, not before.
“This is why you cannot speed in a residential neighborhood,” she said.
She showed a graphic that mathematically charted where the car would have ended up had it been traveling at different speeds. Had it been going the speed limit, it wouldn’t have struck the truck. “Had he been going the speed limit, Alyssa Hawk wouldn’t have been crushed in that car. Cody, Sam and Justin wouldn’t have been flying into the air.”
Deliberations will continue today.
Oaks remains free on $100,000 bail.