A jury on Thursday found Justin Lawson not guilty of two counts of vehicular homicide in the alleged street-racing deaths of two people on State Road 520 in 2007.
By Anthony Colarossi, Orlando Sentinel
8:39 p.m. EDT, September 23, 2010
Judge Bob LeBlanc knows the most emotional moment in court often comes when a jury's verdict is read aloud, so he directed those in his courtroom Thursday morning to maintain their composure.
But Mary Hollar lost it when she heard that jurors found Justin Lawson not guilty of two counts of vehicular homicide in the deaths of two people on State Road 520 in 2007.
"You've got to be kidding me. He killed my son. He killed two people. What kind of justice is this?" Hollar said as she walked from the courtroom seething and questioning everything in the case from inadmissible evidence to the Florida Highway Patrol's investigation.
A few minutes later, Lawson walked from the courtroom in silence with his attorneys and his family members huddled around him. While Lawson had no comment, his attorney Rick Canina said, "This jury made the right verdict.
"Obviously there was a reasonable doubt," Canina said. "The jury did not buy the state's theory that the vehicle was racing. The vehicle was not racing. This is just an accident, a tragic accident."
But the prosecution argued throughout the four-day trial that Lawson, driving in a yellow Mustang Mach 1, was engaged in a street race in east Orange County a little after 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 21, 2007. They cited two witnesses to support that contention.
Lawson, who was 19 at the time, and a driver in a pickup were seen speeding east on S.R. 520 just east of Maxim Parkway when Lawson's 2004 Ford, which was traveling in the outside lane, left the road and drove onto the grassy shoulder, the FHP said.
Lawson, of Melbourne, overcorrected, spun and slammed 31-year-old Robbin Lee Hollar's 1994 Acura, the FHP said. Hollar, of Orlando, was killed in the crash.
The Acura hit the right side of the Ford, killing Lawson's 19-year-old passenger, Lindsay Brown of Rockledge.
The jury was sent home at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday after deliberating and then having part of the testimony of a Florida Highway Patrol trooper read back to them. The jurors had asked to hear that testimony again.
That trooper testified, "Speed played a part in this …It looked like the Mustang was dropped from the sky."
However, the prosecution had problems nailing down a precise estimate for the speed Lawson was traveling when he lost control.
Canina said the state never proved his client was racing and failed to establish a solid estimate of how fast Lawson was going. He said if prosecutors were going to say he was racing, "they'd better establish he was going at an unsafe speed."
He called the prosecution's evidence "very, very questionable."
The defense attorney said Lawson veered off the road briefly and his "over-correction" caused the accident. He also cited a defense expert who said Lawson was going 75 to 80 miles per hour when his car went off the road.
During his closing argument, Canina acknowledged he and many other drivers often exceed the posted speed limit, but emphasized that speeding does not necessarily equate with racing. After Thursday's verdict, he repeated that point, "That speed in and of itself was not inherently dangerous."
Mary Hollar, who was visibly shaken and upset after the verdict, mentioned that Lawson had another driving-related infraction after the December 2007 double fatal wreck.
Brevard County Clerk of Courts records show Lawson received a traffic citation for careless driving on March 10, 2008, in West Melbourne, less than three months after the fatal Orange County wreck. A copy of his citation indicates Lawson failed to use due care, was going too fast for the conditions and following too close.
A clerk's office official on Thursday said Lawson was not adjudicated guilty in that case because he took a four-hour defensive-driving course in April 2008. He also avoided points on his license as a result, she said.
During the trial, Assistant State Attorney Sarah Freeman argued that Lawson's "speed was in excess of 90 miles per hour. … The evidence is: He was racing."
But after the trial, she acknowledged there were some limitations to the speed calculations FHP developed for this case. In addition, a pickup truck thought to be involved in the episode that night was never found.
Witnesses said the driver of that vehicle saw Lawson's Mustang fly out of control, but the driver never stopped to check on the crash scene, Freeman said.
The prosecution needed to prove to jurors that Lawson had operated his vehicle in a "reckless" manner likely to cause death or great bodily harm to another person to convict him of vehicular homicide. At one point, jurors asked for the legal definition of "reckless."
"The main thing is: It's a shame this even happened," Freeman said after the verdict. "It shouldn't have happened."
Anthony Colarossi can be reached at
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