Jury returns guilty verdict in fatal hit-and-run involving correctional officers
By Ruth Ann Krause Post-Tribune correspondent December 11, 2013 6:12PM
Updated: January 14, 2014 12:32PM
CROWN POINT — Lake Superior Court jurors convicted a Lakes of the Four Seasons man Wednesday in a hit-and-run crash that killed one Lake County correctional officer and injured three others.
The seven-man, five-woman jury deliberated about 3½ hours before convicting Jason Cozmanoff of all 13 counts including reckless homicide, criminal recklessness, failure to stop after an accident resulting in death, failure to stop after an accident resulting in serious bodily injury and misdemeanor reckless driving. Cozmanoff will be held in Lake County Jail until his sentencing hearing on Feb. 7 before Judge Salvador Vasquez. Two of the charges are Class C felonies punishable by two to eight years, and the remaining counts are Class D felonies and one Class A misdemeanor. Several of the charges will be merged for sentencing purposes.
During closing arguments, both prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed that Cozmanoff was driving the 2002 GMC Yukon that struck the officers and fled the scene, but they differed greatly on who was at fault in the March 6, 2012, crash. Britney Meux, 25, was killed, and David Murchek, Delano Scaife and Latasha Johnson were injured.
Cozmanoff, who turned 44 Wednesday, did not testify.
Eight days of evidence in the trial showed that the officers, who had worked out after their 12-hour shift, were running single-file after sunset along a short stretch of 93rd Avenue north of the Lake County Government Center. The officers said they were to the right of the white fog line at the edge of the road running east when they were struck at 6:53 p.m. by the eastbound SUV driven by Cozmanoff. He surrendered the evening of March 7, 2012, with defense attorney Jim Thiros, and police seized the SUV from Cozmanoff’s father’s garage. His father, who owns the vehicle, and the defendant agreed to a search and seizure.
Deputy prosecutors Mark Watson and Kate O’Halloran had to prove that Cozmanoff was reckless when he killed Meux — that he had a conscious disregard that his actions could lead to someone being injured or killed.
Watson argued that Cozmanoff’s excessive speed in a 30 mph zone — from 78 mph five seconds before impact to 65 mph one second prior to impact — was inherently reckless behavior.
Evidence also showed that about 2½ hours before the crash, Cozmanoff had consumed two shots and a beer at one Griffith tavern. At a second bar, witnesses recalled him having varying amounts of alcohol — from none to two or three shots.
Alcohol consumption led to Cozmanoff’s flight, Watson argued. “Everybody stops unless they’re trying to avoid the ramifications,” he said.
Thiros argued the officers, who themselves are taught safety procedures to work in the jail, were running in the dark, most wearing dark clothing with no safety reflective gear, and his client had no way to know the danger ahead. Thiros noted the narrow, uneven surface to the right of the fog line, which jurors saw in person on Tuesday.
Thiros also questioned why Lake County police didn’t turn over the investigation to an outside agency such as Indiana State Police because the officers are part of the county police department. Murchek is the son of deputy chief Daniel Murchek.
The SUV had extensive front-end damage, including a broken headlight, missing fog light and passenger mirror, and holes in the windshield and passenger window. Both airbags were deployed, which Thiros said led to Cozmanoff’s confusion and panic.
Jurors saw the scars of Johnson, who suffered a broken arm and underwent two surgeries, and Scaife, whose left arm was severely damaged and who now works a desk job instead of regular correctional officer duties at the jail. Murchek had broken bones in his right foot. Scaife’s blood was inside the SUV.
O’Halloran told jurors that Cozmanoff’s speed of more than twice the limit in a 5,000-pound lethal weapon left him no reaction time and noted he had the accelerator floored, according to expert testimony from Indiana State Police Trooper Terry Gose, who did his own download and analysis of data from the airbag control module.