Chambers, 47, was convicted of vehicular homicide in the death of his 21-year-old passenger, Barbie Wright.
PANAMA CITY — A jury Wednesday sided with the state in convicting Christopher Chambers in the violent crash that killed the mother of his child in 2016.
Chambers, 47, was convicted of vehicular homicide in the death of his 21-year-old passenger, Barbie Wright. Prosecutors presented the case that he sped around a line of cars stopped in the 1900 block of Sherman Avenue as a school bus unloaded children. But the defense contended that it was an accident as a mechanical malfunction prevented Chambers from using his brakes as he was avoiding a crash with other cars.
Chambers faces up to 30 years in prison after being found guilty as charged and that the conviction violates the terms of his probation. He is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 21.
At the end of a two-day trial, jurors spent about an hour and a half discussing the case before finding Chambers guilty. Chambers bowed his head and shook it in disbelief as the verdict was read aloud.
During much of closing arguments Wednesday, Chambers had likewise shook his head and appeared distraught.
Prosecutor Alyssa Yarbrough told the jury the case came down to whether they thought Chambers acted reckless in his driving on April 8, 2016. She said that his speed, the area and the time of day demonstrated that he was.
“He was driving at excessive speeds,” Yarbrough told the jury. “He was passing stopped cars and a school bus, ignoring the time of day. His only focus was getting down the road to get his personal items.”
Defense attorney Caren Bennett, however, argued that Chamber’s role in the crash was more benign. She conceded that he had been speeding before the crash, but said that a mechanical failure was what cost his passenger’s life.
“This was an accident,” Bennett told the jury. “Just because someone dies, as sad as that is, doesn’t make it a crime. … It’s just as likely he was trying to avoid an accident and his brakes went out.”
Court records detail the events of April 2016 when authorities arrived to a trailer park on Sherman Avenue to find a small silver car overturned and “embedded around a utility pole.” It appeared the driver had been driving at excessive speeds along the 35 mph stretch of road and crashed while avoiding a head-on collision with a school bus.
After being treated for minor injuries in the crash, Chambers told investigators he had been trying to locate items taken from his home while he was incarcerated on an unrelated assault charge. Court records show he had been released that day for dragging Wright — his girlfriend and mother of his young child — by the hair for about 100 feet behind his car. Chambers and Wright were headed to an address on Sherman Avenue, where they were supposed to be purchasing some of Chambers’ work tools that had been taken, the Florida Highway Patrol reported.
Chambers had requested a deputy be standing by because the resident of the house was under the impression a stranger, and not the owner, was coming to buy the tools, records state. Chambers and Wright had received word the resident would be leaving soon, so Wright was maintaining cellphone contact with him as Chambers drove, FHP reported.
That’s when the speeding car came up on a line of cars awaiting a school bus.
The final day of testimony focused on that moment, with expert witnesses parsing evidence of skid marks and delving into “Newtonian mechanics” to determine what speed Chambers had been going — either 53 or 79 mph — and whether he had attempted to brake.
Bennett’s final witness was a professional crash reconstructionist, Beau Biller. He reviewed the investigative reports and told the jury the car had logged crash data pertaining to the use of its brakes. However, the data recorder had been “mashed” in the violent wreck and no information could be retrieved.
Biller said that what he could tell from the sparse skid marks leading up to the crash and the history of the vehicle, a 2013 Nissan Versa, he thought there could be an issue with the brakes.
“It’s my understanding it had recalls for brake problems,” Biller told the jury. “If there were attempts at full brake application and only a few marks … that would tell me something was wrong.”
Biller’s testimony on the matter relied on the assumption that Chambers had attempted to brake. And Chambers declined to testify himself to that aspect. Biller also said he did not test the brakes on the car for defects.
Yarbrough called FHP Trooper Dallas Jones as her expert witness to combat the defense’s testimony. Jones was on the scene the day of the fatal crash and gathered evidence used in the trial. Jones said he tested the brakes and later spoke in June 2016 with Chambers, who made no mention of brake issues in the crash at that time.
When asked whether the case came down to brake failure or speed, Jones responded “it’s a problem with speed.”
“After working the interstate for 30 years, this crash is consistent with interstate speeds of 70 to 80 mph,” he told the jury.
The jury agreed.
Yarbrough concluded in her closing arguments that the discrepancies in speed of 53 or 79 mph were inconsequential, because Chambers should have known his actions could at least hurt someone. And since someone died as a result, that constituted vehicular homicide, she said.
“This is no accident,” Yarbrough said. “An accident is when you’re doing everything right and something bad happens. That is not what we have. What we have is his reckless actions that led to the death of Barbie Wright.”