PANAMA CITY — A vehicular homicide trial is underway for a Southport man accused of speeding on a residential road when he flipped a car and killed his girlfriend.
What is at dispute in the case, though, is how fast the car was going and what caused the crash.
Christopher Stevens Chambers, 47, appeared in court Tuesday for the first day of testimony in the case. He was arrested after a violent April 2016 crash on Sherman Avenue that killed his 21-year-old passenger, Barbie Ann Wright. Chambers, with probation violation charges also hanging over his head, faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of vehicular homicide.
Prosecutor Alyssa Yarbrough began Tuesday laying out the case that Chambers had been driving about 79 mph on a 35-mph residential road. She said that while speeding, Chambers attempted to pass a line of cars stopped for a school bus and lost control.
“Cars were stopped waiting for a school bus with children to unload,” Yarbrough told the jury. “That’s when ... Chambers made the reckless choice to pass those cars at 79 mph causing a crash that killed his passenger — Barbie Wright.”
Defense attorney Caren Bennett conceded that Chambers was driving faster than the posted limit but said the evidence would show Chambers was going only about 50 mph. She added that the testimony would show that Chambers was acting more responsibly than in the scenario painted by the prosecution.
“The evidence is also consistent with somebody attempting to avoid a crash — at any speed,” Bennett said. “Seeing parked cars in front of him, the choice was made to not crash into them but to avoid it.”
Bennett argued law enforcement did not get statements from enough witnesses, who would have been able to detail that side. To further her case, Bennett has an expert witness expected to testify that Chambers was not going as fast as the prosecution alleges.
According to Florida Highway Patrol reports, Chambers was driving Wright — his girlfriend and mother of his young child — to an address on Sherman Avenue to locate items taken from his home while he was incarcerated on an unrelated assault charge.
Angela McDonald, a resident of a nearby trailer park, had been moving a computer monitor from her room to her mother’s. Her three children were playing outside. As McDonald looked out her kitchen window to check on the children, she saw a car driving at what she estimated was 70 mph, she said.
“I caught it out the kitchen window,” McDonald said previously. “By the time I looked out the door, all I could hear was crunching and glass shattering.”
Outside, she saw the upturned car wrapped around a utility pole and walked over — past the school bus and line of stopped cars — to check on the occupants of the car. On the passenger side, all McDonald could see was a bloodied hand protruding from the wreckage. She made eye contact with the driver, though, who was moaning in pain.
Joseph Brown, Bay District school bus driver, moments earlier had begun to stop and let about eight children off his bus. It was his third stop, driving north on Sherman Avenue, and traffic on both sides had stopped for the outstretched arm of the school bus bearing the “Stop” sign. As he looked around and the children stood to exit, Brown saw a car “dart” around the stopped traffic in the oncoming lane.
“I seen it coming from behind the last car,” Brown told the jury. “I saw it lose control, then I saw it flip and hit the telephone pole.”
Brown told the children to sit down because he thought his bus was going to be hit by the car.
Chambers was driving south on Sherman Avenue between 70 and 80 mph when he veered to the left to avoid a head-on crash with the school bus, FHP reported.
Chambers’ car instead collided with a utility pole and overturned on the side of the road without hitting the bus. He suffered minor injuries in the crash. However, Wright died from the injuries she sustained in the wreck, officers reported.
The charges reopened his 2006 conviction on charges of attempting to manufacture meth, trafficking meth, possession of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, manufacturing paraphernalia and possession of paraphernalia. He was sentenced on those charges to four years in prison to be followed by 10 years of probation. He could be sentenced as a habitual offender if convicted at the end of this week’s trial.
Officials expect closing arguments to take place Wednesday.