CLEARWATER - Was Justin Fenton the victim of a tragic accident, a 19-year-old teenager whose life was cut short while he was playing a cat-and-mouse game with the driver of a Mustang on Bryan Dairy Road four years ago?
Or was the driver of the Mustang, Joshua Adams, also then 19, driving so recklessly he inadvertently caused Fenton's Ford pickup to flip, leading to Fenton's death?
Those were the central questions today as Adams' trial got underway. The New Port Richey man is charged with vehicular homicide, and, if convicted, could be sentenced to more than nine years in prison.
On Feb. 20, 2009, between 6 and 7 p.m., Fenton and Adams were jockeying for position along Bryan Dairy - passing each other and cutting each other off - when Fenton pulled ahead, Assistant State Attorney Della Connolly told jurors in her opening remarks,
Adams became stuck behind a car in front of him and couldn't "let it go," Connolly said. He hit the gas, reaching speeds of 71 mph in a 40 mph zone, and struck the pickup from behind as he tried to pass it, between Starkey Road and 109th Avenue in Seminole. Fenton and his twin brother, Joshua, were thrown from the pickup as the truck flipped.
"No one will say he intended to kill him," Connolly said. "He didn't mean for this to happen. What he meant to do is show off."
Witnesses saw Adams revving his engine and spinning his tires at stop lights before the wreck, Connolly said. He told his passenger, Joshua Melching, "We're going to show them what this car can really do," she told jurors.
One of Adams' lawyers, Assistant Public Defender Allison Miller, told jurors it was Fenton - not Adams - who caused the wreck by veering into Adams' lane. She promised jurors that an accident reconstructionist hired by the Public Defender's Office would show that was the case.
"Sometimes accidents happen, and they're just that," she said. "It doesn't mean that someone committed a crime."