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Judge halts Washington County vehicular homicide hearing to wait for DA's explanation on case differences

August 15th, 2013 12:16 pm by Becky Campbell

Judge halts Washington County vehicular homicide hearing to wait for DA's explanation on case differences

Rachel M. Proffitt with attorney Don Spurrell in court Thursday.

A Washington County judge said Thursday he wants District Attorney General Tony Clark in his courtroom to explain the difference between two traffic death cases — one dismissed in another court and one being prosecuted in his — when the circumstances are basically the same.

Criminal Court Judge Robert Cupp's directive came during a hearing for Rachel M. Proffitt, who is charged with vehicular homicide in the July 27, 2009, death of Misty M. Briggs, 22, of Jonesborough.

Proffitt fell asleep while driving on Conklin Road around 8 a.m. that day, crossed the center line and hit a vehicle head-on. Proffitt’s attorney, Don Spurrell, said in a previous hearing that his client had been up since 4 a.m. to go to Asheville, N.C., for methadone treatments, then drove back to Johnson City, took her husband to work and was on her way home when the crash happened.

Toxicolgy tests showed Proffit had a therapeutic level of legally-prescribed methadone in her system.

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Proffit has been slated to plead guilty to a lesser charge, criminally negligent homicide, since last year, but each time Cupp has said he has a problem with the case, always implying it was due to the reduced plea.

But Assistant District Attorney General Robin Ray has said she offered the reduced plea because the level of methadone in Proffit's system wasn't enough to impair her ability to drive.

Cupp's issue with the case took a different turn after a vehicular homicide case against another woman - Andrea Nantz, 26, of Harrogate - was dismissed by the District Attorney General's Office last month. She rear ended a parked car on Highway 11E and killed the man in the driver’s seat.

Nantz didn’t have alcohol in her blood, but did have trace amounts of amphetamines, methamphetamine, oxycodone and marijuana metabolite. There were allegations that she had partied the night before the crash. The levels were apparently just shy of the limits required to charge her with vehicular homicide by intoxication.

“Under Tennessee law, criminally negligent homicide is defined as criminally negligent conduct that results in death. When you cross into a  parking lane and hit a car in the rear, that’s criminally negligent conduct. I don’t care what anybody says. You don’t have to have anything in your system,” Cupp said.

The prosecutor in Nantz’s case, Assistant District Attorneys Ken Baldwin, had planned to proceed based on allegations that Nantz was using a cell phone at the time of the crash, but last minute reviews of cell phone records showed the device she was suspected of using was not even in the vehicle at the time.

Cupp said during Proffitt's hearing that the DA's office "created a dangerous precedence in this district," by dismissing Nantz’s case. He demanded that  Clark appear before him to explain the "inconsistency" of the DA's office when determining how to treat similar cases.

“There’s one thing I’ve tried to do throughout my tenure on this bench and that’s try and be as consistent as I can about what I do and I think I do that. The problem is when I don’t get consistence in the attorney general’s office or don’t get consistency in another court,” Cupp said.

Prior to Cupp’s oration on the discrepancies between the two cases. Spurrell had announced Proffitt had decided to withdraw her intent to enter an Alford plea.

After the hearing Spurrell said Proffitt’s decision had nothing to do with inconsistencies in how different prosecutor treat similar cases.

“My client did not feel comfortable with the plea. It’s a terrible accident. That’s what it is,” Spurrell said.

Proffitt’s case was reset for Sept. 26. She is free on bond and had been supervised by the probation department on bond monitoring. Cupp said she would no longer be subjected to that supervision.

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