The bus driver involved in an accident last April that killed two Arlington elementary school students was cleared of all charges by a jury on Tuesday.
BUS DRIVER Pamela Sims, 38, was charged with one count of reckless driving and another count of failure to pay full time and attention. If convicted, Sims faced up to one year in jail.
Lilibeth Gomez, 9, and Harrison Orosco, 7, both students at Hoffman-Boston Elementary School, were killed when the bus, which was preparing to make a left turn from Columbia Pike onto S. Courthouse Road, and an oncoming garbage truck collided on April 18.
Garbage truck driver James Sterling Wallace, 42, has been charged with a single count of reckless driving, and his trial is due to begin on April 3.
The seven person jury — comprising four men and three women — deliberated for less than two hours before declaring Sims not guilty of both charges. Sims did not testify during the trail.
The presence of tire tracks and calculations by accident reconstruction experts proved that both the school bus and garbage truck were "up over top of the yellow line" dividing the east- and west-bound lanes of Columbia Pike, Sgt. Matt Hanley of the Virginia State Police testified on Monday.
After the initial contact between the two vehicles, the steel fork arm of the garbage truck penetrated the interior of the bus, most likely causing the death of the two students, Hanley said.
If the steel arm was not present, or in a different position, the two vehicles would have merely side-swiped each other, causing far less damage, Hanley added.
THE LEAD prosecutor for the county argued that Sims had been distracted just prior to the accident, and had not gotten enough rest after working an eight-hour overnight shift beforehand.
Sims "drove across the yellow line because she wasn't paying full attention to her driving," Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Jason McCandless.
Defense attorney John Keats refuted those claims, arguing that Sims slowed to nearly a complete halt while trying to take a left turn onto S. Courthouse Road, and that activity inside the bus did not affect her driving ability.
"If she did anything wrong…what she did was put a tire on the yellow line," Keats said. "When you're talking about reckless driving, you need something more than the breaking of a traffic regulation."
The evening before the accident, Sims worked the night shift as a stocker at a Safeway grocery store. It was only her second night on the job.
Only a few hours after she finished the shift, Sims began picking up students to bring to school. The proximity of the two jobs left little time for sleep, McCandless said, and Sims should have recognized she was too weary to operate a school bus.
Keats retorted that there was no evidence to suggest that his client did not rest between the two shifts, or that the lack on eight hours of sleep caused the accident.
The state also argued that Sims was distracted by events going on inside the bus in the moments before the accident. After the crash she told detectives that, preceding the collision, she had been talking to a girl on the bus and had also leaned down to pick up a clipboard that had fallen, Det. Paul Guevara said.
Sims did reach down to pick up the clipboard, Keats replied, but "there is no reason to believe it happened at the moment of impact."
INSTEAD, the garbage truck was traveling nearly 40 miles per hour up over the hill that precedes the intersection, and Sims had no time to move out its path, Keats said to the jury. "She had no time to react or do anything," he added.
Sims "had plenty of time to react to what was going on if she was paying attention," McCandless said.
David Schulman, a key defense witness, told jurors that he saw the garbage truck move "very close to the road's center line." He was approximately 100 feet behind the truck at the time, with no vehicles between them.
Gary Stinson, a witness called by the prosecution, said he did not see the bus' break lights go off while it was preparing to make a left turn, but did believe that the bus slowed down considerably.
Fifteen accidents have occurred at the intersection of Columbia Pike and South Courthouse Road since 2003, police officials told the Arlington Connection last year.