Buchanan man in fatal OWI crash appeals ruling

Published 11:55 am Wednesday, August 9, 2023

NILES — Lawyers for Buchanan resident Taylor Ryan Johnson have appealed a late June ruling by Berrien County Trial Judge Jennifer Smith.

Johnson is accused of driving drunk and causing the death of Berrien County Road Department William “Mack” Isom last July in Oronoko Township. 

Judge Smith ruled in July that she would not allow evidence claiming that Isom’s conduct that day caused the accident unless new information comes out. Johnson’s attorneys have claimed that Isom’s actions in not putting up enough signs and traffic cones contributed to the accident which led to his death. 

News that Johnson’s attorneys have appealed Judge Smith’s decision to the Michigan Court of Appeals came at a status conference Wednesday in the case in Berrien County Trial Court. Judge Smith granted a stay in the proceedings Wednesday and set another status conference in 60 days to see if any Court of Appeals decision has been made. 

Johnson had been scheduled to go on trial in Berrien County Trial Court Aug. 29 on a charge of operating a vehicle while intoxicated causing death. That trial has now been put on hold. If found guilty, he faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $10.000. 

The incident where Isom was killed occurred July 20, 2022 on Red Bud Trail in Oronoko Township. The police report stated that Isom was found lying in the road when police arrived. They also found Johnson’s damaged vehicle and Johnson walking around.  

Johnson told police that he had been driving the car and had not seen Isom. A witness told police that they saw Johnson’s vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed and hitting Isom. His blood alcohol level was found to be more than twice the legal limit. 

Defense attorney Jessica LaFond said Wednesday that they are appealing Judge Smith’s refusal of allowing any evidence of causation in terms of Isom’s actions that day to be presented to the jury at trial. LaFond said she believes that it is an issue that the jury should be able to hear. 

LaFond’s colleague, Trevor Maveal, brought up the issue in two days of hearings before Judge Smith in May and June. Maveal presented a witness in May who said that Isom hadn’t properly set up cones and signs before he started removing a tree that was in the road. In June, Maveal withdrew that witness but said he still wanted to bring up the issue at trial. 

Judge Smith ruled in late June that Isom was not negligent in his actions that day and granted the prosecution’s motion to limit any such testimony. She said she would not allow the defense to bring up the issue unless additional facts come out during the trial. 

LaFond said Wednesday that the Court of Appeals can rule after looking at the transcript and briefs already submitted or ask for more pleadings from both parties before making a decision.