After a two-day trial in Loudoun County Circuit Court, a seven-member jury today acquitted a North Carolina man charged with reckless driving in a 2016 fatal crash on Rt. 7 west of Leesburg.
Zebulon B. Downing, 26-year-old accounting firm associate, was nearing the end of a six-hour drive from Charlotte, NC, to meet with a client in Leesburg on Nov. 1, 2016, when his Jeep Wrangler slammed into the rear of a Jeep Grand Cherokee pulled over on the side of Rt. 7 just west of town. The driver of the Cherokee, 44-year-old Steven Snead, who may have been standing in front of his vehicle, was thrown through the air and died at the scene from traumatic head injuries. Snead, a Pennsylvania resident, was found to have a 0.12 blood alcohol content, well over the legal limit for driving of 0.08. It was unclear why Snead had pulled over.
The case hinged on whether jurors believed that Downing was driving with a disregard for the human life at the time of the crash. During a trial last May, a jury deadlocked on the case, unable to agree on an answer to that question. County prosecutors immediately filed for a retrial.
This week, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jason Faw again laid out a case that Downing was distracted just before the crash by an alert from a GPS app on his phone notifying him of his upcoming exit. He said the evidence showed that Downing veered off the travel lane and was partially driving on the shoulder when he struck the stopped vehicle. A key piece of evidence was a photo record from the Sheriff’s Office accident reconstruction team showing Downing’s tire track on the right side of the highway’s white line delineating the shoulder.
In his testimony, Downing said he did not see the parked SUV until it was too late to avoid a crash. He also said he had “no doubt” that the vehicle was stopped partially in the roadway.
After glancing at his phone sitting on his dashboard to check the alert, “the next thing I knew there was a vehicle in my lane,” Downing said, followed by the inflation of an airbag and sparks hitting his face as his overturned Jeep skidded across the asphalt. “It was so quick, there was not much I could do.”
In that area of eastbound Rt. 7, between Clarke’s Gap and the West Market Street exit, Faw said there was line of sight in which a stopped vehicle should have been clearly visible—for as much as 16 seconds at a speed of 55 miles per hour. “He took his eyes off the road for longer than he wants to acknowledge,” Faw said.
Defense attorney Lorrie Sinclair dismissed the prosecution’s version of events as “speculation and conjecture.” There were no eyewitnesses to the crash and no one reported seeing the Jeep parked on or along the road before the crash occurred.
“This is nothing more than an unfortunate accident,” Sinclair told the jurors. “But is not criminal. He did nothing, nothing wrong on Nov. 1, 2016, in the manner in which he was operating his vehicle.”