Traffic lights at center of homicide case

Becky Campbell • Jul 7, 2012 at 9:42 PM

The traffic light sequence at a city intersection where a motorcyclist was killed in May varies depending on traffic flow, according to a city traffic engineer.

The wreck killed Burrell Mitchell, 39, of Johnson City. It happened when a pickup truck driven by 19-year-old Seth Green, of Bluff City, turned into the path of Mitchell’s motorcycle. Green was arrested last week on charges of reckless homicide and aggravated reckless assault.

According to Johnson City Police Lt. Larry Williams, Green was making a left turn from State of Franklin Road onto West Walnut Street while Mitchell was in oncoming traffic on State of Franklin. Green told police there was a green ball that turned to a green arrow, giving him the right of way.

One local resident who uses that intersection frequently said he and his wife have experienced the same thing Green reported, and have nearly been hit by oncoming traffic.

“I’ve seen it at least twice myself and my wife has seen it twice,” said Patrick Costello. “I almost got into an accident doing that (and) the person on the other side gave me a dirty look. It wasn’t a real close call, but it was close enough to me to say that light screwed up. When I see a green arrow, I assume there’s a red light in the opposite direction.”

Initially, police indicated the light sequence does not go in that order Green reported, but that information has now been clarified. But a green arrow would indicate the oncoming traffic has a red light, officials said, and there’s no indication the lights malfunctioned at the time of the fatal crash.

And statements from other witnesses to the crash — including the driver directly behind Green — don’t support Green’s account of what happened, specifically that there was no green arrow giving the turning lane the right of way.

Andrew Shoun, of Jonesborough, was also at the light and waiting to make a left turn from State of Franklin onto West Walnut.

“There was a red pickup truck in front of me. The light was a green ball, not the green arrow. I saw two motorcycles traveling south on State of Franklin and as they made it to the intersection, the red truck cut in front of them. I heard screeching tires and one of the motorcycles hit the truck,” Shoun told police.

Shoun’s statement is in the crash report filed at the police department.

Another witness told police that he and his wife were on North State of Franklin traveling in the same direction as the motorcycles. Jene Smith told officers that “two motorcycles passed us going 50 to 60 mph in front of the Johnson City Medical Center.”

When Smith topped the hill just before the intersection with West Walnut, he saw one of the motorcycles and two people lying in the road.

“My wife stated the light was green,” Smith told officers.

On the accident report, there is no indication of how fast the motorcycle was traveling, but Williams noted Mitchell was speeding.

The routine sequence for that light is for the lanes headed toward West Market Street to have a green light at the same time as the lane turning onto West Walnut. The arrow goes away and State of Franklin traffic headed toward town gets a green light.

Anthony Todd, traffic engineer for Johnson City, said that traffic light does alter it’s rotation or sequence depending on traffic volume and which direction the traffic is traveling.

After the fatal wreck police determined the red light cameras operated by RedFlex were not working, but the company apparently has been able to get images from the hard drive, which apparently still records when the active camera is down.

Police Chief Mark Sirois said those images are “evidentiary in nature,” and he could not authorize their release.

Green is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on the charges July 19 in Washington County Sessions Court.

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