ST. ALBANS — After roughly six hours of deliberations the jury returned with a verdict of guilty in the trial of Tristan Cameron, 18, of St. Albans. Cameron was charged with grossly negligent operation with a fatality resulting.
Cameron, then 17 and newly licensed, was behind the wheel on July 18, 2013, when his car collided with a farm truck driven by Jason Marchand, then 43, of Alburgh, on Duffy Hill Road in Sheldon, killing Cameron’s passenger, Tyler Rheaume, 16, of Sheldon.
Rheaume’s mother, Shannon Gazaille, sobbed as the verdict was announced, but Cameron and other family members remained quiet throughout. Tyler Rheaume’s father is Mitchell Rheaume.
The families of both teens were present throughout the three-day trial and the jury deliberations.
The maximum sentence for conviction on the charge is 15 years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
Following the reading of the verdict, just before noon on Monday, and the polling of the jury, Judge Alison Arms gave the defense 10 days to file any post-trial motions. Although attorneys were not available for comment on Monday, when the court had dozens of pre-trial conferences scheduled, it is quite likely the defense will appeal.
At one point during the trial, jurors were overheard discussing the case. The defense moved for a mistrial, but Arms ruled in favor of the state, allowing the trial to continue. Having interviewed the jurors, she found none had improperly formed conclusions about the case prior to the end of testimony.
The accident occurred on a curve in Duffy Hill Road near the intersection with Burns Road.
Archie Domina, Sr., a Sheldon resident in his sixties, told the court Cameron came wide around the curve. Domina, who was traveling south, avoided Cameron’s car, pulling onto the Burns Road. Cameron pulled to the right, as well, going off the side of the road and then back onto it, losing control and ending with the passenger side of the car in the path of Marchand’s truck. Marchand had been traveling behind Domina.
During deliberations, the jurors asked whether Cameron could legally have had Rheaume in the car and what age Rheaume was. Because no evidence of Rheaume’s age had been given during trial, Arms declined to provide that information to the jury with the agreement of both the state and defense attorneys. However, Cameron had only been licensed since March 17, 2013, not long enough under Vermont law to have a minor passenger without another licensed adult driver in the car.
The jury also asked for clarification of the meaning of several terms in the definitions of negligent operation and grossly negligent operation. The attorneys proposed definitions. Arms decided on the final definitions, providing them to the jury.
In his closing, Hughes told the jury, “Youth and inexperience isn’t a legal excuse here … Driving a car is an adult activity.”
“This defendant should have anticipated or foreseen that there might be oncoming traffic in the blind corner he sped into,” said Hughes. It should be noted there was no evidence at trial that Cameron exceeded the speed limit, which was 50 mph at the time of the accident.
Hughes told the jury that simply because the road is posted at 50 mph does not mean it was reasonable or prudent to have driven at that speed. “Drivers have a duty to maintain control,” Hughes said.
Testimony stated that the truck, driven by Marchand and owned by Domina, was uninspected and could not have passed inspection because three brakes were out of adjustment. “The equipment on the truck didn’t cause the defendant to lose control,” Hughes said. “The cause of the crash was the defendant losing control of his vehicle because of his grossly negligent operation.”
Defense attorney Rory Malone began his closing statement by telling the jury, “This was an accident and not a crime. A young man, Tyler Rheaume, Tristan’s best friend, lost his life in this accident, but that doesn’t make the accident a crime.”
Malone quickly raised the issue of the truck’s defective brakes, saying of Domina, “You know he puts unsafe trucks on the road. He put another truck on the road with defective brakes.” Malone was referring to the 2011 incident in which the brakes failed on a truck owned by Domina and driven by his son Archie Domina, Jr. That truck, filled with manure, crashed into a building on South Main Street in St. Albans City in 2011, narrowly avoiding other vehicles and a restaurant filled with customers.
“If the brakes were not defective, this would have been a completely different accident,” Malone said of the fatal accident in Sheldon.
When coming around that corner, Cameron was confronted with “a big red farm truck driving in his lane,” Malone told the jury. “He made an evasive maneuver to miss that truck as anyone would and another maneuver to avoid that ditch as anyone would and he lost control.”
The defense had argued the travel lane on Duffy Hill was only 15 feet wide at the time of the accident, with Domina’s truck taking up more than 8 feet. Defense expert Kenna Johnston of the Crash Lab in New Hampshire, testified that drivers tended to drive toward the center on Duffy Hill Road, creating a “shared center.”
“Defensive driving is a learned skill, but being inexperienced is not gross negligence,” Malone argued. “Tristan’s driving was not a gross deviation from the norm. Tristan’s speed was not a gross deviation from the norm.”
Given a final opportunity to address the jury before they retired to reach a verdict, Hughes said there was no evidence Domina’s truck was in the center of the road.
Acknowledging Cameron’s inexperience, Hughes said, “A prudent driver who doesn’t have experience drives like an inexperienced driver, slowly and with control.”
While the defense is preparing its post-trial motions, Arms ordered that the pre-sentencing investigation by the office of probation and parole begin. Cameron will not be sentenced until that investigation is complete.