By Justin Wier
Judge John M. Durkin of Mahoning County Common Pleas court expects to have a verdict in Dr. Joseph Yurich’s vehicular homicide trial today.
Dr. Yurich, 38, of Poland, faces several charges stemming from a fatal Berlin Reservoir boat crash May 9, 2015, that left one man dead and another man injured.
Dr. Yurich testified Monday that he heard an “explosion” when the boats collided, which caused him to relive a battlefield explosion from his time in Iraq.
“The last thing I remember is an explosion,” he said. “That explosion triggered memories. I don’t remember anything else until I got to the state park” near the south side of the reservoir.
Dr. Yurich did three tours of duty in Iraq as part of a medical unit. He became choked up while remembering an explosion that hit about 100 yards away from him during his first tour. He was knocked to the ground and had to operate on a number of nurses who were injured in the explosion.
“I remember being scared,” he testified about the moment he recovered his senses near the state park. “I was not sure what the explosion was. I remember wanting to get home.”
In his opening statement, defense attorney John Juhasz said Dr. Yurich believed he hit a rock and sped home because he was worried his boat might sink.
Under cross-examination, Dr. Yurich told the prosecution he did not mention an explosion to Lt. Gregory Johnson, chief of detectives for the Portage County Sheriff’s Department, the night of the crash.
Dr. Yurich also testified that he consumed two beers and two shots at a restaurant an hour or two before the accident. He also said he started, but did not finish, a beer at his friend’s campsite before leaving just before the crash.
Previous testimony had established that Dr. Yurich consumed just two beers and one shot.
The shots were “little beers,” which consist of Licor 43 and heavy whipping cream. Licor 43 is 31 percent alcohol-by-volume.
A friend had offered to drive Dr. Yurich home, but he maintained this was because he would have gotten home quicker and not because he was impaired.
Dr. Yurich also acknowledged that he did not observe the reservoir’s night-time speed limit of 10 mph.
In closing arguments, prosecuting attorney Dawn Cantalamessa argued that Dr. Yurich’s actions prove he was impaired, but defense attorney Lynn Maro said the evidence presented by the prosecution does not meet the reasonable-doubt standard.
“The state has not proven impairment,” Maro said. “And the objective evidence you have shows he was not.”
Multiple witnesses testified that Dr. Yurich was not showing obvious signs of impairment.
Maro also claimed the lights on the fishing boat carrying Neal Cuppett, 58, of Akron, who died in the crash, were either off or not visible at the time of the crash.
Cantalamessa claimed Dr. Yurich knew he “screwed up” after the boat crash and he “ran away.”
“Even [witness] Dustin Seese said, ‘Hey, that guy’s going to kill somebody,’” Cantalamessa said. “Little did he know he already did.”
The prosecutor charged Dr. Yurich with aggravated vehicular homicide, aggravated vehicular assault, operating a vehicle while intoxicated and failure to stop after an accident.
The indictment specifies that aggravated vehicular homicide and aggravated vehicular assault fall under the portion of the statute that specifies the person responsible was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Cantalamessa asked Judge Durkin to consider the recklessness portion of the statute as a lesser included charge if the court cannot find Dr. Yurich guilty of operating his boat while intoxicated.
Maro argued that recklessness is not a lesser included charge, and the prosecution had the obligation to present its case before a grand jury to have Dr. Yurich indicted under the recklessness specification.
Judge Durkin said he will review the relevant case law and make a decision as to whether recklessness is a lesser included charge before entering deliberation and reaching a verdict.
If under the influence of drugs or alcohol, aggravated vehicular homicide is a second-degree felony with a mandatory sentence of two to eight years and aggravated vehicular assault is a third-degree felony with a sentence of nine months to three years.
If reckless, aggravated vehicular homicide is a third-degree felony with a sentence of one to three years and aggravated vehicular assault is a fourth-degree felony with a sentence of six to 18 months.
Operating a vehicle while intoxicated and failure to stop after an accident are first-degree misdemeanors.