“I’ll tell you what, if you hit something, and a human being is on your hood, you’re going to sure know that,” Jason Lewis, the prosecutor, told the jury this afternoon. “And if you don’t know that, you reasonably should have known that.”
Joshua Carver, 36, claimed not to have known that. He knew he’d struck something as he was driving his work van on State Road 100 the afternoon of Feb. 27, 2020. “When it hit it had weight to it, it hit, it jolted me,” he told a cop at the time. But he told the officer he thought it was an object that had fallen from the flatbed truck in front of him. So he kept going–despite the gash the collision caused on the right side of his van, smashing out the headlight, crushing the hood and splattering the side of the white van with blood.
He had not struck an object, and none of the sort of objects he described–none of the objects he claimed to have struck–were found at the scene.
He’d struck Jonathan Rogers, a 29-year-old man who had been walking along State Road 100 with his maroon backpack. He’d struck him at 57 miles per hour, catapulting him in the air and dozens of feet toward the woodline–a collision a Palm Coast man a few car lengths just past saw unfolding in his rear-view mirror. That man stopped, turned around, his mother–who was in the passenger seat–called 911, and he ran to Carver, who was already dead.
A jury took barely 30 minutes this afternoon to find Carver guilty of leaving the scene of the crash with a death, a first-degree felony that exposes him to a maximum of 30 years in prison, and a minimum mandatory four years in prison, given his until-now spotless criminal record. Two days ago, just before jury selection, Carver had turned down an offer from the state: two to three years in prison, seven years on probation. Carver wanted his trial. The rejection of the deal will not play in his favor at sentencing time, but anything close to a 30-year term, or even a term that nears double digits, is very unlikely: he may have been callous and panicked. He was not malicious or cruel. But prisons are filled with dupes of misjudgments.
When Assistant Public Defender Bill Bookhammer made his opening arguments to the jury on Tuesday, he said the jury would end up hearing from Carver, raising the possibility that Carver would take the stand. He did not. The defense offered no witnesses. After the lunch recess today, both state and defense rested. Bookhammer had had a brief conference with Carver about whether he would testify. Bookhammer looked put out, only telling Circuit Judge Chris France that Carver was not going to testify. The jury didn’t see the exchange. It was waiting to be called back in. France, for the record, asked Carver directly what his intentions were. Carver said he was not testifying.
Carver had seen a day and a half of Assistant State Attorney Jason Lewis in action. Maybe he’d wanted to testify and changed his mind. Lewis is a paragon of courtesy and friendliness when court isn’t in session. He is an unforgiving cutthroat when it is in session, and ridiculously, terrifyingly self-assured, quickly demoralizing hostile witnesses. He is as skilled at demolishing almost any defense–especially when there isn’t much of a defense–as he is at anticipating every step the defense might attempt, and demolishing that, too, as he did today with bewildering foresight.
In the closing arguments of a criminal trial, the prosecution goes first, followed by the defense. But the prosecution gets to go again and have the last word. Ordinary prosecutors might throw most of their evidence in their first go, reserving more rhetorical comebacks for their second closing. Lewis, in a reflection of supreme confidence, held back a clincher for that second closing, assuming (correctly) that Bookhammer would fall in his trap.
Bookhammer’s defense was that for Carver, it was all “a normal day of work for him, he’s just going home,” and that “there’s no evidence that he’s some monster.” He painted his client as the single father of a young child, a deliveryman back from his routine run, due to pick up his young son from daycare in 90 minutes. He had no idea he had hit a human being. He claimed to police that he “immediately” called his boss, and that his boss told him the vehicle would be towed and a police report filed later on.
If the original claim that he had no idea he’d hit a person was true, the rest was a lie that made the original claim difficult to believe. Lewis showed the jury the time stamps of Carver’s phone calls. His first call to his boss was almost seven minutes after the crash. Seven minutes that, as Lewis argued, gave Carver ample time to come up with a bogus story about fencing or a chair or concrete posts falling off the truck ahead of him and striking his van. Carver, Lewis told the jury, knew that he had been in a grave collision, knew that he should have stopped, and knew that he should have called authorities, as the law requires. “He doesn’t get to bury his eyes in the sand and pretend that he didn’t know, and try and get away with it,” Lewis said. “I submit to you in this case, this defendant had that vantage point. He knew it, he saw Mr. Rogers, he got distracted, and he hit him. He panicked, and he took off. How he got distracted? I don’t know. That’s really not one of the elements in this case, ladies and gentlemen.”
Carver also told his boss that his windshield had cracked, and that he had tried to catch up with the flatbed ahead of him that caused the alleged collision, but the flatbed was going too fast. That, too, was a lie: a surveillance video from a school bus driving in the opposite direction would discredit Carver’s claim.
“That looks like someone who’s coming up with their story about what happened to cover it up,” Lewis told the jury. “It’s clear as day ladies and gentlemen that this defendant had panicked, he took off, and he came up with this story on the run.”
He drove on for 14 miles. He pulled off the road only because his van was overheating. Only then he surveyed the full damage to the van–and still did not call authorities. He called his boss again and requested a tow truck. Lewis argued that even if Carver’s original claim of not realizing he’d hit a person was true, the gravity of the crash was obvious to him when he stopped, and he should have called authorities then. He still didn’t. (Bookhammer in his closing made the unassailable point that a guilty verdict would not bring back Rogers, an attempt to appeal to the jury’s sympathy for a young father caring for his son. But the hit-and-run law is designed to deter the sort of callousness or indifference that would allow someone to drive away from any crash scene where the responsibility of alerting authorities and rendering help could, in many circumstances, prevent the worst. By choosing to drive away from the scene or not alerting authorities even after discovering the seriousness of the crime, Carver was defying the moral code behind that law.)
By then the Flagler County Sheriff’s office, thanks to the eyewitness’ call to 911, had disseminated a be-on-the-lookout alert to surrounding law enforcement. A Putnam County Sheriff’s deputy saw the white van on the side of the road, matched it with the alert, and identified Carver. He would soon detain him, and later that evening, the Florida Highway patrol placed him under arrest.
Bookhammer’s defense centered especially on a rusty chair that was found at the scene of the collision. Bookhammer argued that that was the object that had fallen from the truck, that had caused Carver to swerve one way, then another, and that had collided with the van. He even showed a picture that showed rusty scuff marks on the van;’s front bumper. Bookhammer also offered several other defenses. But Lewis discredited claim after claim: the chair. The sun in Carver’s eyes. The concrete poles that might have fallen off the truck (that fencing company never carried concrete poles). The chain-link fencing that might have fallen off. There were no concrete poles at the scene. No concrete poles.
Just that rusty skeleton of a chair.
“Maybe it’s not about choices, maybe it’s about a chair,” Lewis told the jury, closing in on his opening argument’s theme: that it was about Carver’s bad choices to run from the scene. “But I submit to you, this chair has nothing to do with this crash.” Lewis also discredited Carver’s own reconstruction of the crash, including his claim that he veered to the left before veering to the right and striking Rogers, even though the witness never saw that double swerve–just the strike against Rogers.
Bookhammer, as humane a lawyer as there is, tried to humanize his client, though there was precious little information about his (or even Roger’s) characteristics from either side. Bookhammer relied on ordinary indices that apply to the overwhelming majority of people: Carver at the time of the collision wasn’t on the phone. He had a valid driver’s license. He wasn’t speeding. Nice to know, but nothing so distinctive as to overcome the prosecution’s point: that Carver’s very ordinariness, the moment it lurched in unordinary territory, panicked and took a wrong turn.
“The state’s argument is that Mr. Carver is a clever enough, callous individual that would make up a story,” Bookhammer said, “and then be naive enough to waive his rights not to talk to the police, and give them a statement, and not only talk to them, but to tell his boss that he had been in an accident, to tell the police that he had been in an accident, tell two police officers he had been in an accident, to tell the first officer at the scene he had been in an accident.”
When lawyers resort to tautological arguments–saying the same thing by different means–you know they’re reaching: they’re short of substance, so they resort to rhetoric, attempting persuasion by identical hammer blows, hoping the jury won’t notice. But most juries do, and this diverse jury of middle-to-past-middle-age residents did not have credulity for wrinkles.
Carver spent the majority of the day as he did the first day–hands clasped in front of him, on top of the table, his head just barely bowed, his eyes often closed as if he were in prayer, or in thought, or attempting to put himself somewhere else, or craving a cigarette (he smoked during breaks). The prosecution had alluded to his smoking in its closing arguments: he may have been reaching for a cigarette or a lighter and briefly lost focus on the road. But that was speculation based on the cigarettes found in his truck.
Two of his family members sat behind him in the courtroom. He did not react when the guilty verdict was read. He just turned to his family members, and turned back to face the front. Unlike in Judge Terence Perkins’s courtroom–where one bailiff in particular likes to slap on the handcuffs the second the word “guilty” is heard–the bailiffs on duty in France’s courtroom were more considerate. They stood by, giving Carver room. The state asked that he be remanded to their custody, his bond revoked. The defense argued that he would need time to get his affairs in order, take care of his 6-year-old son, and that, as he had for the year and a half since the original charge, he was not a flight risk. It would be weeks before sentencing, a date that wasn’t set yet.
France isn’t known for magnanimity. Few judges in the Seventh Judicial Circuit are. He ordered Carver’s bond revoked and his jailing immediate. The days in jail will count as credit against his prison term, but that was small consolation to him or his family members. They exchanged a few words, but after the judge’s order, the cuffs were on, and Carver was walked out the side door even before the usual fingerprinting required by the Florida Department of Corrections (the state’s preferred euphemism for its vast prison system).
Rogers’s mother was in the courtroom, along with one other family member who spoke in humble terms when asked about Rogers. Rogers’s mother had driven down from Virginia to attend the proceedings. She was relieved, almost celebratory, as she was readying to drive out.
But those familiar with the process know better than to confuse justice with triumph. Lewis himself cautioned Rogers’s mother against an effusive reaction when the verdict was read, and she respected his caution.
The very first image Lewis flashed on the overhead screens in the courtroom was that of Jonathan Rogers, a young, smiling man with a past that remained entirely mysterious throughout the trial, though he’d had his own troubles with the law in his youth. Little else would be known about him but that portrait, a heartbreaking contrast with the shattering image–flashed too many times during the trial, for prosecutorial effect–of Rogers lying dead by the roadside, shoeless (one of his shoes would not be found until days later: it had been stuck to Carver’s van for almost two miles before dropping off) and his shirt crumpled up just enough to reveal his midsection, just enough for a final indignity in a life’s brutal, gratuitous end.
“He walked with a gentle hand,” his other family member said just before the verdict, before issuing the sort of verdict that seemed to apply to everyone in the courtroom: “It’s a sad day.”