Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Phillip Barker was violating department policy when his patrol car, driven at more than 100 mph, struck and killed a pedestrian early one morning in 2017, a CMPD driving instructor testified Thursday
Barker, now facing an involuntary manslaughter charge, was on his way to an accident scene when his car collided with 28-year-old James Michael Short, killing him instantly.
CMPD policy “starts with you regarding the safety of others and saying that the speed must be reasonable,” the instructor, Tommie Horton, told the 12-member jury on the first day of Barker’s trial.
The speed limit on the stretch of East Morehead Street where Short was killed, near uptown Charlotte, was 35 mph.
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If convicted, Barker, now 29, could be sentenced to more than five years in prison.
Body cam footage
Prosecutors showed the jury body cam footage of the July 8, 2017, incident. The video from inside Barker’s patrol car showed Barker speeding in response to a call of a vehicle crash around 3:18 a.m.
In the terminology of CMPD, the call was viewed as a “priority one,” an emergency situation that needed an officer response in under six minutes.
The video showed a sudden collision that shattered most of the patrol car’s windshield. The vehicle comes to a stop and Barker gets out of the car to flashing blue lights.
Bill Bunting, a prosecutor in the case, told jurors that Barker’s car struck Short with such force that parts of Short’s body were flung farther than the length of a football field.
Making their cases
Barker disregarded his duty as an officer to maintain the safety of citizens, Bunting said in his opening statement: “He betrayed the trust that the community placed on him.”
Barker should have been more aware of his surroundings, Bunting said.
George Laughrun, Barker’s defense attorney, told jurors that Short bore more responsibility for what happened that night. Short’s autopsy showed that his blood-alcohol level was three times the state’s threshold for drunk driving.
Laughrun told jurors that Short also had ingested a number of prescription medications, including a heavy dosage of Xanax, an antidepressant.
That combination of alcohol and drugs, the defense said, could have impaired Short’s decision-making and affected his ability to see Barker’s patrol car before crossing the street.
Short’s black attire also played a role, Laughrun said, adding, “You can’t predict what you can’t see.”
Horton, the CMPD driving instructor, said he teaches police trainees to drive at speeds that allow them to identify, and react to, people or objects that may get in their way.
Barkers’ speed, Horton said, could have impacted his ability to see Shorts crossing the street.
“The faster you go, the less your peripheral vision works,” Horton told the jury.
An emotional day
Short’s family, including his parents and siblings, attended Thursday’s testimony, at times appearing unable to hold back tears.
Before body camera footage was shown, prosecutors suggested that the family might want to leave the courtroom, but they stayed.
Short’s brother, Joshua, the oldest of four boys, was called to the witness stand to briefly reflect on his relationship with his brother, who he referred to as “Mike.”
Joshua said the two talked often, describing his brother as a “happy person to be around.” The two, he said, sometimes went out to drink and play pool.
The brothers had discussed going out the weekend that Short was killed, but Joshua said a change of plans caused him to cancel the outing.
Joshua said his brother was in good physical health but acknowledged that Short, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was taking prescription medications to improve his mental health.
The trial is set to resume Friday at 9:30 a.m. and is expected to go into next week.