CHEROKEE COUNTY, Ga. — The defense for an Atlanta teen argues cellphone use did not factor into a deadly 2017 accident, and they believe the fact that she’s been charged in the reopened case could be politically motivated.
Zoe Reardon, 18, was back in court Friday for a pretrial hearing tied to the deadly crash. In early September 2017, a then-17-year-old Reardon hit Kaitlin Hunt, her 3-month old daughter Riley and a family friend, 61-year-old Kathy Deming.
The group was walking to a concert at the Northside Hospital-Cherokee Amphitheatre in Woodstock when Reardon struck them around 8:15 p.m. Hunt, a Hurricane Irma evacuee from Florida, was holding her infant, and they had family walking ahead of them.
Reardon, who was leaving the Falcon-Ridge horse stables, was driving a silver Jeep along Arnold Mill Road. Phone records show her final text to her father was sent more than two minutes ahead of the crash. It was a discussion regarding dinner.
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“She sent a text message two minutes and 40 seconds prior to the accident when she was stopped,” defense attorney Manny Arora said. “There’s no other issue on the phone. … Nothing else that was touched on that phone. It’s just a red herring to try and poison the jury, in my opinion.”
An initial investigation by the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office concluded Reardon was not texting and driving at the time of accident.
There were no streetlights or crosswalks, and Reardon was driving between 28 and 36 miles per hour in the 35 mph zone. The report also noted the victims were wearing dark clothing.
Reardon and her parents spoke to Channel 2 last year, maintaining that she was focused while driving.
“Sometimes an accident is just an accident and you don’t need to try and force blame on somebody,” Arora said outside of court.
According to testimony offered by Deputy Jason Lubo, Reardon admitted to putting her phone in a bag, at some point around an aquatic center, which would have been close to the crash site.
In the first interview, Reardon told investigators her bag was in the passenger seat. In a second interview, the deputy says she’d mentioned it being on a floorboard.
Lubo later wrote that the accident was “unavoidable.” The case was closed without charges four months later.
About a month later, Riley’s father filed a lawsuit against the City of Woodstock, alleging negligence in failing to provide a proper pedestrian crossing at the site of the accident. At the same time, the case took a turn.
"Next thing I know, the D.A.'s office is asking to reopen the case and another officer comes through and looks at it and comes to a different conclusion of the exact same evidence," Arora told Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr.
By May, Reardon was bonding out of jail on vehicular homicide and distracted driving-related charges. She is currently in Texas attending college as she awaits trial.
“And the idea is that if Ms. Reardon is convicted, then the city arguably avoids liability and they can blame her for being at fault,” he continued.
An attorney representing the City of Woodstock in that civil matter declined to comment on the theory.
On Friday, the defense argued against the language in the charges, as well as the analysis of the second Cherokee Sheriff’s Office investigator who reconstructed the site.
The argument was to dismiss his witness statements “due to his lack of expertise and training in twilight illumination and incomplete investigation and assessment of the incident."
The analysis was was evaluated differently by the defense’s independent reconstructionist, a former Fulton County and Sandy Springs police officer who was brought to the stand Friday.
One of Reardon’s nine misdemeanor charges includes noting her failure to warn the pedestrians by honking her horn.
“You have to realize there’s a reason to do it and then not honk,” defense attorney Scott Poole said, countering that the charge, according to the evidence and Reardon’s statements, doesn’t make sense.
The remaining charges revolve around vehicular homicide and distracted driving, the latter lacking specific details, according to the defense.
“The prejudicial evidence, spillover, etc. that would be generated by the state in trying to prove the unsevered count is obvious,” the motion reads. “As the accusation currently stands, there would be nothing fair about the trial. As the gatekeeper, we ask this court to correct the error of joining count 9 (text-based communication while operating a motor vehicle ) to this accusation and allow Ms. Reardon to have a fair, just and equitable trial. At that point, the chips can fairly fall where they may."
Prosecutors maintain the charge arguments should be reserved for trial, and also asked that the trial be pushed back for the victims’ sake. It’s scheduled for the week of March 10, which would have been Kaitlin Hunt’s 30th birthday.
It is also when her sister is set to give birth to her first child. Hunt’s parents don’t want to have to grapple with choosing where to be at that time, a prosecutor and family spokeswoman said.
The victims’ family declined comment Friday, through that spokeswoman.
Judge Alan Jordan said between the civil calendar and attorney leave, that may mean pushing back the trial to May.
“This isn’t Fulton County. We do try cases here,” Jordan said, referencing an earlier comment by a witness that she rarely got to testify in Fulton County trials. “I also know closure is very big thing. Jordan will rule on the motions Tuesday."