Judge rules driver not guilty before Bengtson death trial goes to jury
By Bob Steenson, [email protected]
The man accused of vehicular homicide for killing a young Charles City woman was found not guilty by the judge Wednesday before the case being tried in Floyd County District Court ever went to the jury.
Colby William Elliot, age 45, of Clarksville, had been charged with homicide by vehicle, a Class C felony, for his involvement in the death of Ellen Bengtson, then age 28, when his pickup truck struck Bengtson on her bicycle while they were both traveling on Shadow Avenue south of Charles City in August 2020.
Elliot was accused of reckless driving leading to the homicide, because he was using his cellphone when he struck Bengtson on her bike.
In statements he made at the scene of the accident to law enforcement personnel and recorded on their body cameras, Elliot repeatedly said the accident was his fault, he was sorry, he was stupid, that he had been looking at this phone and didn’t see Bengtson, and that he thought he would be going to jail.
Elliot’s trial in Floyd County District Court began Tuesday morning with jury selection, then Tuesday afternoon, after opening statements by both sides, the Floyd County Attorney’s Office began presenting its case, introducing recordings of the 911 calls Elliot had made, dash cam and body cam recordings from the deputy who first arrived at the scene, evidence extracted from Elliot’s cellphone, accident reconstruction models and more.
After Floyd County Attorney Rachel Ginbey and Assistant County Attorney Randall Tilton finished presenting their case Wednesday morning, the defense then asked the judge to issue a judgment of acquittal for lack of evidence for a conviction.
Such a motion is routine in criminal cases and is usually denied by the judge, then the defense begins presenting its evidence.
In this case, however, Judge DeDra Schroeder said she needed to take the defense motion into consideration and recessed for lunch.
When the trial reconvened, without the jury in the room, Schroeder ruled that “the evidence presented by the state, viewed in the light most favorable to the state, is insufficient to sustain a conviction.” She ruled that the motion for a judgment of acquittal was granted and the case was dismissed.
Bengtson’s parents, Peter and JoAnn Bengtson, who live in Washington state and were at the trial in Charles City, expressed shock at the decision.
“We’re just dismayed,” Peter Bengtson told the Press. “With all the admission on tape that he hit her, never saw her and he was sorry. He was looking at his phone about a boat sale. How can that happen?”
JoAnn Bengtson said, “It doesn’t set a precedent, in Iowa, that distracted driving and killing someone while distracted by your cellphone is any way a crime. It actually sends the opposite message, which is if you run somebody over while you’re looking at Facebook, you can get away with it.”
The case turned on how Elliot had used his cellphone, and the interpretation of Iowa laws dealing with use of a cellphone while driving.
Elliot had told authorities that his cellphone was face down on the console of his Ford F150 pickup truck and he heard it buzz, signifying a message had been received. He picked up the phone and read a Facebook message notice that was displayed on the screen, and while he was looking at the phone his truck struck something.
He didn’t know what he had hit, so he turned around, went back, found a bicycle and Bengtson in the southbound ditch, and called 911. He stayed with Bengtson, urging her to keep breathing, until a Floyd County deputy, then AMR ambulance, then an ambulance helicopter arrived.
Bengtson was airlifted by Mercy Air Med to MercyOne-North Iowa Medical Center in Mason City, where she died from her injuries. An autopsy determined she had died from multiple blunt force traumas.
In his opening statement, Elliot’s attorney, Robert Rehkemper of West Des Moines, said that Elliot’s anguished remarks, “I looked down and, bam, I hit her. It’s my fault. I’m so sorry, I’m so stupid. I know better. She wasn’t doing anything wrong,” made to authorities at the scene, “are not the words of an individual who callously, indifferently and selfishly engages in conduct that puts somebody in immediate risk of harm. That’s not the words of somebody with a cold, dark heart, who puts his own interests over everybody else.”
Rehkemper told the members of the jury that they would receive a lot of information about what happened that day, but, “Importantly, what you’re not going to hear or see is any evidence of Colby opening that message, manually entering, transmitting or sending a message. He simply looks down at his phone – that is all that the evidence is going to show – he looks down at his phone, recognizes and looks at the message, and in that timeframe, he strikes Ms. Bengtson.”
He said the incident was an accident, caused by a mistake that resulted in tragic, permanent, horrible consequences, but it was an accident, not a crime.
In a motion filed in October, Rehkemper had asked the judge to rule on points of law, including what constitutes “improper use of an electronic device” while driving that results in a death.
In 2017, Iowa law was amended to say that “a person’s use of a hand-held electronic communication device to write, send, or view an electronic message while driving a motor vehicle shall be considered prima facie evidence that the person was driving the motor vehicle in a reckless manner with willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.”
The code section goes on to define the terms “write,” “send” and “view,” to mean “the manual entry, transmission or retrieval of an electronic message, and include playing, browsing, or accessing an electronic message.”
The County Attorney’s Office responded to that earlier defense motion by arguing that the use of the words “view” or “accessing an electronic message” does not require that a person touch or manually open a message to read it.
After a hearing on the matter in November, Judge Schroeder ruled that “the court finds that the viewing of a notification on a phone screen qualifies as reckless conduct” according to the Iowa Code, and “the court adopts the state’s position as the correct interpretation of the law.”
Following that ruling, Rehkemper filed a trial brief again raising his arguments that many uses of cellphones are legal, including interacting with GPS, placing phone calls, receiving weather warnings or Amber Alerts.
“Merely viewing the notification of the message is not sufficient to rise to the level of the conduct statutorily designated as recklessness. If this were so, a driver of a motor vehicle would be playing ‘notification roulette’ anytime they looked at a phone while driving,” he wrote.
After the dismissal, Peter Bengtson said, “Clearly the legislation needs to be tightened up. The law in the state of Iowa needs help. It’s so vague it literally allows somebody to get away with murder.”
Ellen Bengtson was an environmental engineer at Cambrex Charles City Inc. She was originally from Richland, Washington, where her parents still live.