Man who received new vehicular homicide trial pleads guilty

John Thompson • Updated Jan 16, 2020 at 9:46 PM

ELIZABETHTON — Jerry Ray Thomas Oaks entered a guilty plea in Carter County Criminal Court on Tuesday on a vehicular homicide case that had been sent back to the court for a retrial.

The guilty plea by Oaks came less than a year after the Tennessee Court of Appeals granted him a retrial on his conviction of vehicular homicide by intoxication. The charge stems from a Feb. 13, 2016, crash between two cars that seriously injured Oaks and killed Vincent Hitechew.

In August 2017, a Carter County Criminal Court jury convicted Oaks of vehicular homicide by intoxication. He received a sentence of 16 years in prison. Oaks’ attorney, Wesley K. Taylor, appealed the case to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. Taylor questioned the use of a sample of Oaks’ blood taken while he was in the emergency room at Johnson City Medical Center because there had been no search warrant for the taking his blood for a test of his intoxication level.

During the first trial, Judge Lisa Rice said exigent circumstances excused the warrantless draw of a sample of Oaks’ blood. According to the Court of Appeals, Rice said it would have taken a 1 1/2 to 2 hours to obtain a warrant. Officers knew they had a short window of time before Oaks would be taken to the operating room.

After a thorough review of the details of the events leading up to the blood draw, including the fact that one judge who could have signed the search warrant only lived a few minutes from the hospital where Oaks was going into surgery, the Court of Appeals said, “We hold the the evidence in the record preponderates against the trial court’s finding of exigent circumstances and such a finding was in error.”

On another point made by Taylor, the appellate court said the trial court did not err by sustaining the state’s objection to a line of argument by the defense during closing arguments.

Assistant District Attorney General Matthew Roark spoke to the Johnson City Press about the plea agreement on Thursday. Without the evidence of the blood draw, he said there was still the evidence Oaks was driving on the wrong side of the highway at the time of the crash.

Instead of the charge on the indictment, which was vehicular homicide by intoxication, a Class B felony, there was charge of vehicular homicide by recklessness, which fit the evidence of driving in the wrong lane, a Class C felony.

After the first trial, Oaks was sentenced to 16 years. Under the plea agreement, Oaks was sentenced to serve eight years and was classified as a multiple offender. That classification will require him to serve at least 35% of his sentence prior to becoming eligible for parole.

Oaks was given credit for time he served in pretrial confinement and served in his first conviction. That credit runs from Sept. 4, 2016, to May 8, 2017, and from Aug. 16, 2017, to May 13, 2019.

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