ST. PAUL-A Hudson, Wis., woman was careless when she fumbled for her cellphone and wound up crashing into a line of cars on Interstate 35W in New Brighton - resulting in a fatality and a serious injury. But she not grossly negligent, according to a Ramsey County District Court Jury.
Prosecutors had to prove gross negligence in their case against Destiny Xiong, who hit Brea Miller and Michael Bain's Honda Fit as it sat stopped in traffic on the afternoon of May 1, 2016. Miller died and Bain, her fiance, was seriously injured.
After less than an hour of deliberations Tuesday morning, the jury found Xiong not guilty of the most serious counts: criminal vehicular homicide and criminal vehicular operation resulting in great bodily harm.
She was found guilty of careless driving, a misdemeanor.
Xiong, 36, wiped away tears and hugged her defense attorneys after the verdicts were read.
Her relief stood in contrast to the reaction from the victims' families, some of whom sobbed and refused to stand for jury members as they exited the courtroom until a legal advocate urged them to do so.
"It was a just verdict," Xiong's defense attorney, Earl Gray, said following the trial. "This wasn't a criminal homicide case. (Xiong) wasn't grossly negligent."
Bain, disagreed, calling the jury's findings "shameful," and referring to what he sees as grossly inadequate consequences for distracted driving in Minnesota as an "epidemic."
"My daughter will go through her entire life without a mother. This is not justice," Bain said. "This will continue to happen."
In a statement, the Ramsey County attorney's office said: "Despite a finding of guilt on the added count of careless driving, we are obviously disappointed with the not guilty verdicts for the felony counts but we respect the jury's decision."
Bain, then 37, and Miller, 31, were on their way to pick up their then-2-year-old daughter from her grandmother's house when they got caught in traffic caused by bridge work on I-35W.
The St. Paul couple were waiting at the back of the line of cars when Xiong, on her way to pick up her own three children in Brooklyn Center, smashed into the rear of their car.
The impact crushed the couple's Honda Fit, forcing the vehicle into the car in front of it, which in turn hit another car.
Miller died three days later. Bain suffered a traumatic brain injury and broken ribs.
The prosecution and defense both agreed that Xiong's distracted driving caused the crash.
She admitted to authorities that she just looked at a short text message from one of her children on her phone - the message read "Okay" - when she accidentally dropped it.
She had just retrieved it and was attempting to place it on her dash when she looked up and found herself crashing into the vehicle in front of her, according to legal documents.
Where the prosecution and defense differed was on whether Xiong's actions amounted to gross negligence.
Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Margaret Samec argued that they did. Samec told the jury during her opening statement that Xiong was driving between 62 and 72 mph when she smashed into the line of cars and had traveled past five signs warning her of the upcoming bridge work.
But the defense argued that the state's crash reconstruction expert made critical errors in estimating how fast Xiong was going that day.
None of the signs Xiong drove past urged drivers to slow down, the defense maintained. Most were detour signs, Gray said during his opening statement.
An expert hired by the defense testified that he estimated Xiong's speed at the time to be between 51 and 64 mph. The speed limit was 60 mph.
Speaking after the trial, sometimes through tears, Bain said he has spent the past several months trying to adjust to life as a single father to his and Miller's now-4-year-old daughter, Isabel.
"She was the best mother I have ever seen," he said of Miller. "That's all she wanted was to be a mother, and that bond was broken when Isabel was 2 years old."
Xiong works in human resources for the Minneapolis Police Department. She has no other criminal convictions on her record.
She had tears in her eyes as she left the courthouse holding hands with her husband Tuesday afternoon, her other family members following close behind.
She declined to comment on the verdict.
Xiong is expected to be sentenced on her misdemeanor conviction in April.