It was supposed to have been a previously scheduled 10 a.m. examination by a crash reconstruction expert of two vehicles involved in a fatal motorcycle crash last month.
But as the sun rose early Tuesday morning the situation quickly escalated into a series of legal battles that included two emergency court hearings, three legal filings and an emergency motion by the state to have St. Johnsbury Defense Attorney David Sleigh disqualified from the case.
It was all over by 2 p.m.
Both vehicles were eventually inspected by a crash expert hired by Attorney Sleigh and Caledonia Superior Court Judge Michael J. Harris did not disqualify Sleigh from the case.
But court documents show obvious tensions between Attorney Sleigh and the prosecutor in the case - Caledonia County State’s Attorney Jessica Zaleski.
“The state is actively impeding the defense investigation of this case at considerable expense to the defendant,” wrote Attorney Sleigh in his second emergency motion filed Tuesday Morning.
“As to the Emergency Motion filed by Attorney Sleigh while the undersigned was driving to work, the state asserts-AGAIN-that it is not denying access to evidence,” wrote Prosecutor Zaleski in her motion to dismiss Sleigh from the case.
Sleigh represents David Rath, 41, of Kirby, who is accused of driving his Subaru Forester into a group of oncoming motorcycles on Red Village Road in Lyndon on Aug. 26 resulting in the death of motorcyclist Philip Barrett of East Burke and injuries to motorcyclists Kari Harris (no relation), 35, of Lyndonville, and Christopher Jenkins, 36, of St. Johnsbury.
Rath pleaded not guilty in Caledonia Superior Court on Monday to charges of gross negligent operation with death resulting and two counts of gross negligent operation with serious physical injury resulting.
The state has already conducted a forensic examination of Rath’s Subaru and Barrett’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle which have both been impounded as evidence at the Lyndonville Police Department.
Prosecutor Zaleski agreed in open court last Thursday to allow Sleigh’s expert to examine the vehicles at 10 a.m. on Tuesday.
That agreement lasted until just before 7 a.m. Tuesday morning when Sleigh was informed by Zaleski that she would not allow defense access to vehicles that morning because she believed Sleigh had a conflict of interest in the case related to his past representation of one of the other motorcyclists involved in the crash - Christopher Jenkins - who Sleigh previously represented in a negligent operation case.
“Attorney Sleigh represented victim Chris Jenkins in the above referenced docket less than a year ago,” wrote Zaleski in her Emergency Motion To Disqualify Defense Attorney filed with the court on Tuesday. “The offense was a motor vehicle offense. The present charges are motor vehicle charges. The matters are substantially related…The matter referenced above must be addressed on the record to avoid future legal issues.”
Sleigh responded by filing his first emergency motion of the day to permit the inspections which was heard by Judge Harris at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.
“The inspection of the vehicles in no way constitutes use of prior knowledge of Mr. Jenkins to his disadvantage,” wrote Sleigh in his motion. “The motorcycle to be inspected was not his and any information gleaned from that inspection is entirely unrelated to Mr. Jenkins’s prior matter…Defendant’s expert is traveling towards Lyndonville to conduct the agreed upon inspection at the moment. Denying timely access to the vehicles will prejudice defendant’s ability to prepare an adequate defense.”
Judge Harris ruled in Sleigh’s favor and allowed the defense expert to proceed with the examination as scheduled.
But when the crash expert finished with the Subaru and turned his attention to the wreckage of the motorcycle Zaleski once again intervened which came as a surprise to Sleigh.
“The defense expert was allowed to inspect and photograph the Subaru but was denied the opportunity to inspect the motorcycle,” wrote Sleigh in his second emergency motion of the day which was heard by Judge Harris at 1 p.m. “The state represented it had no objection to the aforementioned inspection.”
Once again the Judge ruled in Sleigh’s favor and allowed the defense inspection of the motorcycle which was conducted Tuesday afternoon.
Judge Harris did leave the door open to the possibility of future arguments over whether Sleigh should be disqualified from the case due to the alleged conflict of interest if it is raised again.
“The court’s preliminary view is that the state lacks standing to raise the disqualification issue,” wrote Judge Harris in his ruling issued on Wednesday.
Sleigh has told the court that he has already informed his client Rath of his prior representation of Jenkins and that Rath has consented to continued representation by Sleigh.