In June 1998, a Vinton County, Ohio grand jury indicted 27-year-old Leona Pettit on a charge of murdering her boyfriend by driving her car into the back of a tractor mower he was driving along the side of a two-lane blacktop highway.
Witnesses told police that on May 22nd, they saw Leona drive her car into the back of the mower and push it for several feet before the tractor tipped over, pitching 27-year-old Charles Pettit into a ditch and causing a serious head injury. Charles died on May 30, eight days later, when he was taken off life support at a hospital.
Leona had formerly been married to Charles’ brother, Michael, but had been living with Charles for several years and they had two children. Prosecutors contended that Leona was angry with Charles because he had kicked her and her two children out of their home.
Leona went on trial in February 1999 in Vinton County Common Pleas Court. Several witnesses testified to seeing or hearing the crash.
Katie Adams said she saw Charles hit the ground, but did not see any contact between the car and the tractor.
Another woman, Glennadine Hess, said she heard a loud bang and the scraping of metal. She said she saw the car pushing the tractor and that it fell over, flipping Charles off “like a rag doll.” She identified Leona’s car as the vehicle pushing the tractor. She also admitted that she had given different versions of the accident, including one where she said she heard a crash and another where she said the sound was only a thump.
Hess’s husband, Melvin, said he heard a crash and saw a car pushing the tractor and Charles being flipped off.
Gerald Byers said he saw the car bump the mower and then leave. He said he heard a crash and saw Charles fly off the tractor. He said he did not see the car hit the tractor a second time, but assumed it did.
A physician testified that Charles suffered an irreversible brain injury. The physician said that surgery was performed to relieve severe brain swelling. He said Charles was given morphine for his pain and a sedative and had virtually no chance of surviving. Charles died not long after life support was removed, the physician testified.
A pathologist who performed the autopsy said Charles suffered extensive skull fracturing and that he had died from the blunt impact to his head.
Police testified that the tractor’s right tie-rod was separated from the steering mechanism, causing the right front tire to flop around uncontrolled.
A woman who was serving a drunken driving sentence and shared a cell with Leona prior to trial testified that Leona said she hit the tractor because Charles had kicked her out of the house. She said also said that Leona never said she intended to hurt or kill Charles.
David Archie, whose sister was married to Michael Pettit, testified that in March 1998—two months prior to the accident—Leona had asked if he knew anyone that could “get rid of” Charles for $1,000. Archie testified that a week or two before the accident, Leona said that if she wanted Charles dead, she would do it herself. He admitted he never told authorities about the statements prior to the accident because he didn’t know if she was serious and thought it wasn’t his business. He denied being arrested for theft—a statement the defense would show was a lie.
The defense presented the testimony of Josh Massie, Leona’s 13-year-old nephew, who was in the car on the day of the accident. Massie said they were driving down the road when they saw Charles and slowed down. The couple began arguing and Leona nudged the tractor about six to eight feet at less than 10 miles an hour, then backed off. The tractor drove into the grass in the side of the road and when Charles tried to drive back onto the road, it tipped over and he fell off.
Shelly Truman, Leona’s sister, testified that a month before the accident, she saw Charles using a wire coat hanger to try to repair the tractor’s tie-rod. David Price, who repaired small motors and mowers, testified that Charles had come to him looking for mower parts because he had a problem with a tie-rod. Price said that if a tie-rod fails while the vehicle is being driven, it can cause the vehicle to crash.
Leona testified that she saw Charles riding the tractor and stopped to tell him to drive it home because black smoke was rolling out of the back. When Charles refused and kept going, she said she bumped the tractor because she was angry. She said it was a light bump and that Charles flashed an obscene gesture, so she pushed the mower again for about five or 10 feet. She said Charles drove into the grass on the side of the road and she stopped. The tractor kept going, she said, and then flipped over and he fell off. She said she saw Charles sitting up and that she drove off because he looked uninjured.
A physician testified for the defense that he believed Charles had been given a fatal dose of morphine and a sedative that caused his death.
On March 3, 1999, Leona was convicted of murder. She was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
In July 2000, the Ohio Court of Appeals reversed the conviction, ruling that the trial judge had improperly instructed the jury on the issue of intent, resulting in an erroneous instruction that allowed the jury to convict Leona on the basis of negligent rather than purposeful behavior.
Leona went on trial a second time in July 2001, represented by new attorneys, Barry Wilford and Dennis Belli. In this trial, they presented a witness who was an expert in accident reconstruction. The expert examined the tractor and testified that the accident was caused by the failure of the tie-rod when Charles attempted to drive back onto the road. The expert said he believed that based on the position of the tractor after the accident, it would have taken a side impact—not pushing from the rear—to flip the vehicle over. The lawyers also brought in a pathologist who testified that the head injury Charles suffered would not reasonably have been expected to cause his death, and that Charles died after being taken off life support because the large dosage of morphine and sedative had impaired his ability to breathe
On July 20, 2001, the jury acquitted Leona and she was released from prison.
– Maurice Possley