The DWI trial of Ronald J. Wendt II hit a snag late Friday afternoon when the prosecution elicited testimony regarding the equipment used in the accident-scene investigation.
Without the jury present, Judge Robert Noonan questioned the admissibility of information about the Nikon Total Station, Vista FX (6th Edition) and Crashnet, saying case law and the equipments' use in other jurisdictions needed to be researched before he could make a ruling.
As a result, fact-finding in the case, which was expected to conclude by 5 o'clock, was reconvened until Monday at 1:30 p.m.
(The judge has another matter to handle Monday morning.)
All but perhaps two or three people present were in for a lesson in modern technology.
It began with the testimony of Genesee County Sheriff's Deputy Ronald E. Meides, who has nearly 20 years of service and was named Officer of the Year in 2009.
He took the stand at 3:30 p.m. and detailed his training, which included 14 weeks of field training, in accident-scene investigations and said he had handled about 1,000 of them, but only 20 serious enough to warrant an extensive report.
Meides investigated the accident scene in front of My Saloon in Darien in mid-August last year. Under questioning by Deputy District Attorney Kevin Finnell, he said the process includes viewing the scene, collecting data, observing the vehicles involved, noting skids marks, gouges in the pavement and environmental factors.
Measurements of tire marks, etc., are taken, in this case, on the day following the accident -- in the daytime on Aug. 15. Meides said the places where the vehicles came to rest had been spray painted and other physical evidence noted. Reference points are also noted -- a nearby drainage basin, a telephone pole, curb cut-outs, driveways, and the front porch of My Saloon.
A week later the officer went to Parisee's automotive shop in Alexander where the Sheriff's department secures and stores vehicles. He measured the "crushed profiles" of driver Rachel Enderle's Toyota Camry and defendant Wendt's Dodge Ram extended-cab pickup.
All of the data is stored in an electronic measuring device -- the Nikon Total Station -- and downloaded into a computer. Then a picture is drawn around the "data points" shown on the screen. The resulting diagram was projected in the courtroom Friday for the jurors to see.
The gist of Finnell's questions and Meides' answers seemed to indicate that this nifty tool used in creating the diagram can determine approach angles, (impact) departure angles, distances, points of impact, resting points, speed and on and on.
All ready to go for it, Finnell then asked "What happened in this accident?"
Defense Attorney Thomas Burns objected, saying there was no foundation established to allow testimony indicating the equipment is standard and accurate.
The jury was recessed and the judge left the courtroom to do a bit of research.
When Noonan returned, with the jury still out, he said his "research shows the Nikon Total Station has not been cited in any case in New York or elsewhere in the United States.
"Absent some indication by this or some other witness, that the Nikon Total Station is generally accepted, I can't allow testimony about it. I've never heard of it, know nothing about it, just that you put data in and get information. The objection is sustained."
But after all this took place, Finnell did his own research during a break and then offered that, well, Vista FX is really the computer-aided draft (CAD) software used in doing the calculations, the Nikon gadget is only a measuring tool -- a fancy tape measure, so to speak.
Noonan, who seemed rather exasperated, said that's the first he'd ever heard about the Vista FX, since no one brought it up before, and he asked if it was "judicially recognized for admissibility purposes?"
At that point, close to 4:30, the prosecutors, including District Attorney Lawrence Friedman, scrambled to find a credible witness to testify about the widespread acceptibility of Vista FX. The judge, too, left the room briefly to research this thing, and upon his return announced that his efforts "were equally unfruitful."
But Finnell persisted, saying "It's a valid software program, a CAD program, widely used."
"Then we need to lay that foundation," Noonan said.
Whereupon, finally, Sheriff's Sgt. William C. Scott, who had left the courthouse only shortly before, returned and took the oath to testify.
Scott, with 21 years of service and hundreds of crash-scene investigations to his credit, told of his familiarity with Vista FX and the Nikon Total Station. These, he said, are routinely used by law enforcement, fire inspectors, engineers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The Nikon Total Station uses a "reflective prism" to measure distance and other data and the Vista FX software is a CAD program which uses the Nikon information to map out the scene. These are specially geared for use by law and fire departments and in Genesee County they've been employed for 10 years, according to Scott.
"Once you put in the data, what does it give you?" the judge asked Scott.
"Points on a screen," the sargeant replied, which you can label and ID beforehand on the Nikon.
"Do these instruments calculate speed, direction?" Noonan asked, trying to put all the pieces together.
"No, not in and of itself," Scott explained, sort of. "They are used for you to make your own determinations. The program (Vista FX) can be input with information for it to calculate...the mathematics for crash measurements."
Scott said he was trained to use Vista FX by the vendor himself and his salesman.
Burns asked if Vista FX can calculate the results, if requested, for speeds of vehicles at the time of impact, or provide estimates of the kinetic energy, or amount of force, in a crash.
Yes, Scott said, he uses Vista FX and measurements gathered from other sources to glean information to feed into yet another wonder of the modern world, Crashnet.
This is a software program comprised of 150 mathematical equations, embedded in Vista FX, to provide answers once figures are manually put in. For example, the momentum of a bicycle involved in an accident with a car.
Burns asked if other members of the Sheriff's Department were also trained in Crashnet and Scott said that four or five others were trained the first week it was acquired.
This is also employed by the Sheriff's offices in Niagara and Chautauqua counties, among other organizations, Scott said.
"Have they put that before a court? Has it been used in any court?" Burns asked.
"I don't know," Scott responded.
"This is new territory," Noonan said. "I know you want me to make a ruling today, but I want to look into this a little more before reconvening (the jury)."
Eighteen-year-old Katie Stanley died in the crash Wendt is on trial for. She was a front-seat passenger in Rachel's car when it slammed into the side of Wendt's truck just after 11 p.m. on Aug. 14, 2009.