ANCHORAGE, Alaska – When a pickup truck crossed the double yellow line along Seward Highway (search) and killed two occupants of a Jeep Grand Cherokee, police initially thought the accident was another tragic mistake by a momentarily distracted driver.
Then they spotted the dashboard DVD player (search).
In what may be the first trial of its kind in the nation, prosecutors have accused the pickup truck's driver of second-degree murder for watching a movie instead of the road when he crashed head-on into the Jeep.
The pickup's driver, Erwin J. Petterson Jr., denies using the DVD player as he drove north on Oct. 12, 2002 and contends he was only listening to music from a compact disc, said his attorney, Chuck Robinson.
"It's an excessive charge for what happened here," he said. "This was not a murder. Even the state medical examiner said during cross-examination that the manner of death for the people in the other car was accidental."
Petterson, 29, is accused of killing Robert Weiser, 60, and his wife Donna Weiser, 56, of Anchorage, while on a three-hour drive between Kenai and Anchorage. In his truck was the equivalent of a home entertainment system — a DVD player, speakers and a Sony PlayStation 2.
While no Alaska law prohibits operating a DVD player in view of a driver, prosecutor June Stein said the facts warranted charging Petterson under one of two theories: that he knew his conduct was substantially certain to cause death, or that he knowingly engaged in conduct showing extreme indifference to human life.
Initial Alaska State Trooper (search) reports said Petterson was at fault when he took his eyes off the road to reach for a soda. Stein, though, will try to prove that the DVD player was on, apparently playing the movie "Road Trip."
"We know it was," she said. "It was wired so that the screen was in the open position when the ignition key was turned out."
The murder trial, which got under way last week in Kenai Superior Court, may be the first of its kind in the nation, said Matthew Swantson, director of communications for the Consumer Electronics Association (search), a trade association.
Installed as recommended, DVD players and TV screens are either visible only from the back seats or will not work unless the vehicle is in park. But owners can defeat the safety measures by installing the devices themselves, as Petterson did, according to prosecutors.
Robinson said he expects prosecutors to have trouble winning a second-degree murder conviction. "I think the prosecution is going to have a tough time proving the mental state of Mr. Petterson," he said. "It's a tragic accident that happens all the time on our highways."
Liz Neblett, spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (search), said more than 25 percent of police-reported crashes are distraction related, which covers everything from cell phone use to changing channels on a radio, screaming at kids, eating, applying makeup or reading a newspaper.
Vehicles can be equipped with fax machines, cell phones and two-way radios. But none should be used if they interrupt the concentration of drivers, she said. "It's a no-brainer. If it's distracting, don't do it," Neblett said.
After the crash, Petterson and his passenger, roommate Jonathan Douglas, were transported to an Anchorage hospital. Within hours, Douglas called his ex-wife and told her he was not sure how the collision occurred because he was "spacing out on a movie they were watching," according to prosecutors. The woman is scheduled to testify.
David Weiser, 34, the son of the slain couple, said only two people know what happened in the cab of the truck. But equipping a truck with entertainment options that can be used while driving goes beyond a momentary distraction of putting on makeup or using a cell phone, he said.
"This takes forethought, this takes methodical steps," David Weiser said. "You have to go to the store, plop over money, install it, and install it so it can be used without a brake employed.
"I view it as no different than walking into a bar, having five beers within an hour and getting behind the wheel," said Weiser, who quit an eight-year career as a loan originator in Boston to attend the trial.
Driving laws have not kept up with technological changes, Weiser said. He plans to work toward changing that after Petterson's trial is over.
"I would like for the jury to sit and hear the evidence, and if the evidence shows what I believe to be true, that his conviction reflect that," he said.