Trial begins in double fatality case

ESCANABA – Witnesses at a fatal accident testified in court Monday, recalling what they saw seconds before a logging truck ran a red light and collided with a vehicle in a Gladstone intersection last year.

The jury trial of Harley Davidson Durocher, 25, of Gwinn, began Monday in Delta County Circuit Court. He is charged with six felonies relating to the deaths of Thomas and Barbara Swift, an Escanaba couple who died from injuries received in the three-vehicle accident on March 20, 2013.

Durocher was driving an empty semi truck north on U.S. 2& 41/M-35 when he did not stop at a red light at South Hill Road and collided into the Swift’s vehicle at 8:21 p.m., according to Gladstone Public Safety, the investigating agency.

Thomas Swift,73, the driver of the vehicle, was killed in the accident. His wife, Barbara, 73, a passenger, died from her injuries four days later. The Swifts were westbound and attempting to make a left turn to go south onto the highway when the accident occurred.

A third motorist involved in the crash – Joyce Scheriff, 72, of Gladstone – was transported to OSF St. Francis Hospital where she was admitted for treatment and later released. Her westbound vehicle was on the right side of the Swift vehicle at the time of the collision.

Durocher, who was not injured in the accident, was charged with six 15-year felonies: two counts of reckless driving causing death; two counts of operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license causing death; and two counts of operating a motor vehicle with the presence of a controlled substance (marijuana) causing death.

During the first day of the jury trial on Monday, three motorists testified what they saw prior to the collision. One driver was southbound approaching the red light at the intersection. A second driver was northbound behind the semi. The third witness was driving directly behind the Swift vehicle at the light when the crash occurred.

During the attorneys’ opening statements, the prosecution sought six guilty verdicts based on the conditions of both the driver and the truck. The defense asked for six not guilty verdicts, blaming Tom Swift for not seeing or hearing the truck.

Delta County Prosecutor Steve Parks told the seven-woman six-man jury, “Mr. and Mrs. Swift were at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Parks said the evidence will show that Durocher had a small amount of THC, the chemical trace of marijuana in his blood. His drivers license was suspended at the time he was driving the truck.

Parks said Durocher was driving too fast for the condition of the truck; the semi was not operating properly with only 21 percent of its 14 brakes working.

Evidence will also show the defendant was not driving at a safe speed to stop ahead, added Parks.

“The theory of the case is the time to stop was over 11 seconds,” he noted.

Defense Attorney Jim Howarth, of Detroit, told the jury in his opening remarks, “There are two sides to every story and there are two sides to this tragic accident… This is a classic case of an unavoidable accident.”

Howarth said his client was very surprised to the see light turned to yellow then red. When Durocher went for the brakes, they didn’t work, the attorney said, adding, “They were shot.”

Durocher did everything he could to stop the truck including sounding the air-horn, said Howarth. There were skid marks on the highway; it’s harder to stop an unloaded truck compared to a loaded truck, the lawyer commented.

Howarth said Tom Swift could clearly see the truck from where he was.

“It’s a sad tragedy,” continued Howarth. “Was he not paying attention? Was he distracted?”

Howarth said the most significant word in this criminal courtroom is “cause.”

“What caused the accident?”, Howarth questioned, saying reckless driving didn’t cause the accident, the THC in the defendant’s blood did not cause the accident, and his client’s suspended license did not cause the accident.

Howarth told the jury that “common sense alone will tell you” that the defendant “is not to blame in this sad case.”

During the week, more witness testimony is expected from the other driver injured in the accident as well as from additional witnesses and police.

Durocher remains free on bond. Following his arrest last year, he was initially lodged in Delta County Jail in lieu of a $100,000 bond. On June 28, he posted $2,500, or 10 percent of a $25,000 bond, and was released from jail.

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Jenny Lancour, (906) 786-2021, ext. 143, jlancour@dailypress.net