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Judge: Trial for truck driver charged in fatal Route 24 crash will stay in Harford County, for now

Attorneys for a New Jersey-based truck driver accused of crashing his vehicle and killing a 7-year-old along with a prominent businessman in Harford County last March requested his trial be moved from the jurisdiction Wednesday.

Retired Judge Lawrence Daniels struck the motion down, but stipulated that the proceedings could be moved elsewhere if the court was unable to find an impartial jury.

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Carloo Everton Watson, 50, was indicted Aug. 27 on two counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, two counts of vehicular manslaughter with criminal negligence and four counts of causing serious injury while using a cellphone in connection with the March 11 crash.

The wreck on Route 24 killed Andrew Klein, 65, a Forest Hill resident and president of Klein’s Family Markets — a Shop-Rite subsidiary — and Tripp Johnson, 7, who was in second grade at William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary in Abingdon. Four others were also injured in the crash.

Watson’s attorney Brian Thompson collated over 100 national, regional and local news articles about the crash, arguing the case’s publicity would preclude his client from a fair trial. The public scrutiny, combined with the victim’s profile in the county, were reasonable grounds to move the proceedings somewhere else — proceedings that every local judge in Harford County has recused themselves from, he argued.

“The victims in this case were lifelong members of Harford County,” Thompson said. “It is not just the publicity ... it is the noteworthiness of the victims in this case.”

Trying to impanel a jury in Harford County would be a waste of the court’s resources, and that it would be better off transferring the proceedings to avoid the sunk cost and “an appellate issue” arising from an unfair trial, he said. Thompson pointed to numerous negative comments posted to social media as evidence of the community’s leaning on the case, which he printed and submitted to the judge in a thick purple binder.

Assistant State’s Attorney Cristin Treaster argued that the standard for changing a trial’s venue is not whether finding an impartial jury is improbable, and that the court should only change locations if it is truly impossible to find an impartial jury. She also said that the articles Thompson cited were purely factual and did not get into any of the “trickier” issues, which she would not elaborate on at Wednesday’s hearing because of media presence in the courtroom.

“You cannot expect a jury to be ignorant to the facts,” she said. “What matters is if they can set that preconceived notion aside and hear the evidence.”

Daniels decided to leave the door open on the motion to change venues. He said that the court would attempt to assemble a jury in Harford County, but would move the trial if such a panel could not be found. He reasoned that, given the case’s profile and coverage by national media outlets like the Associated Press, a resident of neighboring Baltimore County would be as aware of the case as a citizen of Harford.

“If we cannot pick a fair and unbiased jury in this case, I will grant your motion,” Daniels told Thompson. “We are going to do whatever has to be done, regardless of logistical issues.”

Though Daniels was not sure if he had been assigned to the trial, he said he would be “very liberally granting” prospective jurors’ excusals for cause — reasons that disqualify prospective jurors from participating in a trial. He also anticipated drawing a larger jury pool for the selection process.

The attorneys and judge concurred that a trial would likely span approximately two weeks between jury selection, proceedings and jury deliberation.

A supporter of Watson’s present at the hearing declined to comment on the proceedings.

Treaster would not say why the judges recused themselves from the cases after the hearings.

Online court records do not show a scheduled trial date for Watson. The trial was last postponed on Jan. 13.

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