Joshua Carver, 36, faces up to 30 years in prison if found guilty of the hit-and-run collision that killed Jonathan R. Rogers as he walked on State Road 100 a year and a half ago. On Monday, Carver was offered plea deal of two to three years in prison, assuming the judge was willing to agree. Carver turned it down. He wanted a trial, as is his right. Late this afternoon, at the end of a withering day for his defense, Carver may have been having second thoughts.
The case Assistant State Attorney Jason Lewis, the prosecutor, is building so far is leaving little room for doubt that Carver knew he’d been in a grave collision that required him at least to pull over and call authorities, which he never did. The prosecution is making it difficult for Assistant Public Defender Bill Bookhammer to convince the jury that Carver never knew he’d hit Rogers, and so never was “running” from a “hit.” Or that he thought he’d struck a fence or a fence post that had fallen from the truck in front of him. None of those claims appeared credible today by the time Lewis’s day was done.
The state’s case isn’t over yet. The day ended with Florida Highway Patrol Cpl. Pete Young on the stand, with more testimony to give. Young is the veteran traffic homicide investigator who got to the scene of the crash shortly after it happened and meticulously investigated it since, uncovering key clues about it–like the identity of one of the trucks involved in the incident–on one of his days off, merely through observation. It was through Young’s investigation that Lewis demolished the defense’s claims piece by piece.
The pieces are what matter in this case: a rusty chair. Rolled up chain-link fencing. Concrete poles. The fencing company’s truck. Carver’s work van.
The incident that ended the life of Johnathan Rogers, almost 30 at the time, took place on February 27, 2020, between 4 and 5 p.m. on a lustrously clear day, along a stretch of State Road 100 that extends more than two miles without a curve.
Carver, whom Bookhammer described as the 36-year-old single father of a 6-year-old child, worked in a warehouse every morning, delivering auto parts every afternoon and driving State Road 100 routinely. He was returning to Palatka. There’s no evidence of impairment or texting or using the phone. On the stretch of road in the area of the collision, just west of County Road 302, he’d been behind a Ford F-450 truck pulling a flatbed trailer. In his statement to FHP Trooper Tiffany Williams, Carver said he noticed something loose in the back of the truck. He backed off, but kept his eyes on the materials on the flatbed. It was bouncing off. “You focus on it, you look at it,” Bookhammer told the jury, explaining why Carver did not see Rogers walking west on the side of the road (with traffic).
Something metallic came off. “He tells Tiffany Williams that he goes to the left to try to avoid it, and then goes off to his right,” Bookhammer said. “He felt an impact. He described it as a large impact. It had weight to it. That impact when he left the roadway was when he struck Mr Rogers.” But he said he had no idea that’s what he’d struck. He kept driving. At the time of the collision, his GPS showed he was going 57. The GPS would indicate he’d soon accelerate to 77. Carver would later say to a trooper that he was trying to get close to the flatbed to get a tag number. Video evidence would show that was not the case–at least the video evidence shown in court.
Carver didn’t call 911. He called his supervisor, and in his supervisor’s words–he testified–kept apologizing up to a dozen times, which his supervisor found odd. He told his supervisor and FHP that he’d struck rolled up chain-link fencing or a concrete fence post. But none of that was found at the scene, even if it was on the flatbed.
“State doesn’t have any evidence that Mr. Carver is is a monster, that he would just callously leave somebody to die,” Bookhammer said. The Putnam County Sheriff’s deputy who caught up with Carver miles down the road “will describe the look on Mr. Carver’s face at that instant as one of shock. Of shock. Not the look of somebody who had driven 14 Miles knowing that he had struck a human being, but who’s finding out for the first time the first very instant what had happened.”
But to the prosecution, those 14 miles, a long enough stretch that by then Carver was in Putnam County, was evidence of callous disregard, an attempt to evade something, and the only reason the deputy caught up with him is because he’d been forced to pull off the road–because the force of the collision had so damaged the engine and smashed up the hood that his van was overheating.
Bookhammer in his opening argument hinted that Carver would take the stand in his own defense. The prosecution has built a strong enough case that Carver’s testimony may end up being his best chance to win over the jury. Lewis is leaving him little choice. Carver himself, who’s been out on $35,000 bond, sat at the defendant’s table in a three piece suit, hands clasped–he took few notes, if any, did not seem to speak with Bookhammer much–attentive and immobile, his fingernails bitten down to the nub the only sign of anxiety.
Preceding it, Lewis’s opening argument was half the length of Bookhammer’s, and as always with Lewis, merciless. The very defendant to whom he’d been willing to extend a two-to-three-year prison deal was now a monster: After violently crashing into Rogers, “this defendant did the unspeakable, ladies and gentlemen. He fled from the scene,” Lewis said, pointing his lanky arm and finger at Carver. “He left John Rogers on the side of the road in a ditch, dead. This is a case about choices.”
Carver chose to drive on, then to lie about what had happened by concocting a story about debris falling off the bed of the truck ahead of him, in Lewis’s telling. Lewis told the jury that Carver had had time to make up his story as he followed the flatbed truck, though at no point Lewis provided an explanation as to why Carver would have swerved to the point of crossing onto the grass and striking Rogers. No one is claiming he did so intentionally. But no one today explained why he would have done so at all, if not because he was attempting to avoid debris. It is, so far, the only vulnerability in the prosecution’s case.
“He didn’t report it to the police, he didn’t render help, he didn’t do anything,” Lewis said. Instead, he called his boss and said a truck with fence posts dropped materials that struck his van, which now needed to be towed. “What will be abundantly clear: this defendant made a choice that day. He chose to tell a different story, whether he was scared, whether he was panicking, whether he was afraid he was going to get in trouble for harming the work van, he did not tell the truth.”
The Palm Coast man and his mother who had been in the area of the crash and watched it happen in their rear-view mirror–and who called 911–testified today. The man said he didn’t see a truck in front of the work van. He saw two sedans. There was no rolled up fencing found at the crash scene, nor any fence post. There was the frame of a rusted chair, embedded in the ground, and the plastic seat for the chair nearby.
The defense, in a sign of grasping at straws, at one point was attributing the “debris” to the chair, which may have been on the flatbed, placed there by the workers of the fencing company so they’d have something to sit on during their long day. The company’s owner, who testified, discredited that theory, saying these chairs are not allowed, nor are any personal belongings, on the back of trucks–and the man who was driving his truck that day was the most careful and methodical of his crew members, never getting so much as a traffic ticket. Bookhammer tried to question the owner about his fear of liability, but the owner deflected the questions.
Young, FHP’s traffic homicide investigator, had concluded that the chair had been there days, possibly weeks, and played no role in the crash. It had no marks of any sort of collision–and it wasn’t the sort of object that could leave the sort of dent that Rogers did on the work van.
The trial today drew four people in the audience, aside from a reporter and a victim’s advocate: two members of Rogers’s family, and two members of Carver’s. They sat on either side of the courtroom. Several times one of Rogers’s family members broke down, especially when images of the van’s smashed and blood-splattered side were shown, when an evidence photo showing his body in the woodline briefly appeared for the jury and the rest of the courtroom to see, and in brief video clips from school bus cameras that Young had secured, and that captured Rogers in his last hours as he walked west.
The day ended with Young still testifying about his evidence, and Lewis systematically knocking off one defense claim after another. He told the court he still had half an hour with Young. Bookhammer had tried to find weak points, inconsistencies, contradictions, but his various parries were mostly dead ends. There were no surprises from the witnesses. But the defense’s entire case is still ahead, and no matter how decisive a case may look at any one point, it can still–if rarely at this stage–turn on the strength of a single testimony. That will continue Wednesday morning before Circuit Judge Chris France in Courtroom 301.