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Judge dismisses all charges against truck driver in 2019 Harford County crash that killed Andrew Klein, child

The New Jersey truck driver who was involved in a deadly 2019 crash on Route 24 in Bel Air was acquitted of all charges Wednesday by a Baltimore County judge.

Judge Mickey Norman dismissed two counts each of gross negligence manslaughter by motor vehicle and criminal negligence manslaughter by motor vehicle against Carloo Everton Watson. In his ruling, Norman said the state had not met the burden of proof to convict Watson, 51, and that the Maryland State Police investigation into the crash was not as thorough as it could have been.

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“If you as a police officer are going to conduct an investigation,” Norman said, “pardon my French, but you do not want to do a half-ass investigation.”

On March 11, 2019, a ShopRite tractor-trailer driven by Watson crashed into a line of traffic stopped at the red light on Route 24 and Ring Factory Road, south of Bel Air. Klein’s Family Markets President Andrew Klein, 65, of Forest Hill, and William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary second-grader Tripp Johnson, 7, died in the crash.

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“If I could move heaven and Earth to make them better and bring them back, I would,” Watson said after the conclusion of the trial. “I hope they can find it in their hearts to forgive me.”

Watson opted for a bench trial, heard by a judge, rather than a trial by jury. His attorney, Brian Thompson, had filed a motion arguing the publicity the crash had received and Klein’s high profile in the community were reasonable grounds to move the proceedings outside of Harford County because of the challenges of selecting an impartial jury. That motion was denied in February 2020.

Norman, a Baltimore County judge, was hearing the case in Harford County Circuit Court because local judges had recused themselves from the proceeding.

Prosecutors introduced over 100 pieces of evidence throughout the trial, and Norman said Wednesday that he reviewed every piece of evidence offered before making his decision.

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Criticizing the state police investigation, Norman said investigators should have interviewed Watson, who offered to speak to them in the immediate aftermath of the crash. He also noted that investigators did not look for evidence at the Shop-Rite store in Forest Hill, which Norman said they should have known Watson had gone to before the crash.

On the first day of trial, state’s witness Emily Strawbridge said she saw a Shop-Rite trailer swerving while on her way to work the day of the accident. While she did not see the driver, prosecutors suggested it was Watson, who they said knew he was not controlling the vehicle properly — that he was tired and should not be driving.

But Norman said there was just as great a likelihood that Watson had swerved to avoid something in the road. In reading over the documents submitted into evidence, he found that truckers are supposed to avoid panic-stops to prevent their vehicles from jack-knifing.

Norman also said the state failed to prove that the defendant had not gotten enough sleep in the days before the accident. Video footage of a nearby intersection also showed the tractor-trailer driving without any troubles.

Prosecutors had argued that Watson was using a cellphone and made no attempt to brake prior to the crash. On Tuesday, the judge threw out traffic charges that Watson was using a cellphone when the crash occurred, stating that prosecutors failed to meet the burden of proof that he was in violation of Maryland’s hands-free laws. The police’s failure to investigate the cell phone and hands-free device also played into his decision, Norman said.

Video introduced earlier in the trial showed Watson using a Bluetooth headset at a stop prior to the crash. While video from the crash scene did not show him wearing the headset, Thompson said it could have been thrown off of him in the crash.

After he was acquitted, Watson said he did not know what happened the day of the crash. Thompson said it is not uncommon for people to have few memories after a car crash, as several state’s witnesses said during the trial.

Judgments of acquittal like Wednesdays are rare, Thompson said. He has only seen it one other time in over two decades of practicing law. The fact that the judge acquitted Watson “sends a powerful message as to whether this should have been brought as a criminal case,” Thompson said.

While the tragedy was not a crime, Thompson said his and Watson’s hearts go out to the families who were affected by the crash.

“This was an enormous tragedy for this community,” Thompson said.

As the judge gave his decision, one man seated in the public gallery left the room, and a woman behind him began crying.

“It is human nature to want to understand why something happened,” Norman said in closing. “Sometimes you just can’t.”

Watson had to dry his eyes after the court was adjourned. He said his next priority is to take care of his family.

After the trial, Harford County State’s Attorney Albert Peisinger said the prosecutor’s office disagreed with the result but respected the process.

Members of Klein’s family did not wish to comment when reached by phone following the conclusion of the trial. Family members of Johnson could not be reached immediately by phone.

This article may be updated.

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