By Daniel Bendtsen
Via Wyoming News Exchange
LARAMIE — A 48-year-old Kansas woman is being tried in Albany County’s District Court this week for causing a wreck that killed 57-year-old Laramie man Vidal Madera in March 2018.
Tonya Hightower has been charged with aggravated homicide by vehicle, a felony that can carry a prison term of up to 20 years.
At about 5 a.m. March 21, 2018, Hightower was driving a tractor-trailer west on Interstate 80 when she caused the wreck that killed Madera.
She had just entered Albany County when she apparently fell asleep and the semi-truck veered south off the road.
To be convicted of “aggravated” vehicular homicide, the jury must decide Hightower drove the vehicle “in a reckless manner.”
A jury decision could hinge on whether Hightower’s decision to drive while apparently fatigued constituted “recklessness.”
In a pre-trial order, Judge Tori Kricken suggested that question is relevant, noting a 1992 case in Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court that determined a person is criminally responsible if they drive “knowing that he or she may become unconscious.”
Hightower’s truck drove through the 75-foot median and entered the eastbound lanes, striking Madera’s red sedan.
An evaluation of the tractor-trailer’s trajectory indicated Hightower’s vehicle was traveling 45-57 mph at the time it struck Madera’s sedan.
The sedan was “torn roughly in half,” according to an affidavit from Wyoming Highway Patrol Lt. Michael Simmons.
After Hightower struck Madera’s sedan, her vehicle continued southwest, leaving the interstate before passing through a wire fence and coming to a stop in a field.
Simmons said Madera suffered “extreme, fatal injuries.” His seatbelt had been fastened at the time of the wreck. When police arrived at the scene, the seatbelt was still buckled even though Madera’s body was not in the vehicle.
Hightower’s attorney has sought to limit the number of autopsy photos shown at trial.
Those photos, depicting “dismemberment and exposed organs” could be extremely prejudicial, defense attorney Branden Volis has argued.
Prosecutors have agreed to limit the number of photos. Kricken has warned prosecutors to limit the jury’s exposure to the gruesome photos, however, she’s deferred making decisions about whether specific photos are shown to the jury until prosecutors submit them during the trial.
When WHP Trooper Dustin Ragon responded to the accident, Hightower told him she “did not know what happened and that she just lost control of the vehicle.”
Ragon asked whether Madera’s car had been parked when Hightower struck it.
“I hit a car?” she responded.
Hightower told the trooper that before the wreck, she had taken some leftover pills from a 2017 surgery, including hydrocodone.
She did not test positive for narcotics when a blood draw was conducted later, according to court records.
After charges were filed, Hightower was released on a $10,000 signature bond.