A jury on Thursday held an Atlanta man responsible for causing a fatal hit-and-run wreck on Ga. 400 last summer.
Walter Bell was found guilty of homicide by vehicle in the first degree, reckless driving, leaving the scene of an accident and tampering with evidence.
He was acquitted on one count each of felony murder and aggravated assault.
Sentencing is scheduled for April 11. Bell could face a total of up to 31 years in prison for all counts.
The charges stem from a July 9 wreck that resulted in the death of 21-year-old Jenny McMillan Gutierrez of Roswell. Bell had pleaded not guilty in December.
After the verdict, Sherry McMillan, Gutierrez’s mother, expressed gratitude.
“We are very thankful for each person who worked so hard on behalf of our precious daughter,” she said.
Forsyth County Assistant District Attorney Heather Chambers declined to comment on the matter.
It was not immediately clear if Bell would appeal the decision. Attempts to reach Rafe Banks, his attorney, Friday were unsuccessful.
The jury deliberated for several hours Thursday after hearing closing arguments that morning.
Both sides had rested their cases Wednesday afternoon following two days of testimony before Forsyth County Superior Court Judge David L. Dickinson.
In her closing remarks Thursday, Chambers reminded jurors that two witnesses had testified they saw Bell weaving in and out of traffic and cut Gutierrez off twice before the wreck.
Witnesses also said Bell then sped away and took Exit 14, heading east, toward where he worked.
“The reason we’re all here is because of that man right there,” said Chambers, gesturing to Bell. “We’re all here because he couldn’t behave himself on the road.”
She asserted that the second time Bell crossed in front of Gutierrez, he hit his brakes, causing her to lose control of her car in an evasive maneuver, cross both lanes of traffic and land deep in the roadside woods.
She reviewed the charges for the jury and provided examples of how evidence the prosecution presented proved Bell’s guilt.
Banks countered that witnesses called by the prosecution gave inconsistent accounts of what had happened on that Saturday morning in July and attacked their testimony.
He held that there was no body damage to the white Mercedes Bell had been driving. And when the defendant returned the car later that day to the rental company, it was because he’d been asked to bring it in for maintenance.
He said the case against Bell, who was 44 at the time of the crash, was the result of what he calls “cleared by arrest syndrome.”
“We got somebody in jail, job done,” Banks said.
He said the prosecution had not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt and asked the jurors for a not guilty verdict.
Three men who were incarcerated with Bell in July were called to the stand Wednesday. They testified the defendant had been beaten behind bars because he showed no remorse.
All three men were charged with conspiracy to commit aggravated battery for their involvement in the beating, which left Bell with a broken nose. The charge was reduced to misdemeanor battery and each pleaded guilty.
Jacob Oglesby said he was curious about why Bell was in jail and had jokingly asked if he was there for capital murder.
“His response to me was, ‘It depends on who messes with me,’” Oglesby said.
He eventually learned about the wreck and said Bell told him he hadn’t stopped because he didn’t think it was that bad.
Oglesby said Bell’s “bold arrogance” didn’t sit well with him and described the defendant as “real cocky.”
“I was tired of listening to him talk about how he was going to get off of his charge,” said Oglesby, adding that Bell seemed to have no compassion or remorse for Gutierrez’s family.
Oglesby said he pleaded guilty to the battery charge because he punched Bell in the face. He admitted he has a lengthy criminal history that includes felony theft convictions.
Corey Hamill, who was incarcerated at the time on drug charges, said he stood in front of a surveillance camera during the beating so authorities couldn’t see what was going on.
“They just beat him up because they thought he was guilty,” Hamill said.
He said he’d heard Bell talking on the phone to someone and saying something about a car being repaired.
He said Bell at first seemed calm during the conversation, but at the end seemed aggravated.
Bell was vague when other inmates asked him why he’d been jailed, Hamill said, and some of them had family members look into the matter.
Hamill said he’d also heard Bell say he had paid a good amount of money for a lawyer and “he was more than likely going to beat it.”
William Handley said the beating was a mistake and he and the other men involved let their emotions get in the way.
He added that Bell had said he’d hired Banks, who has a “great reputation” as a defense attorney in Forsyth County.
“I figured he’d walk,” Handley said. “In my personal opinion, he did it and I took it into my own hands.”
Maya Edwards, a manager trainee at Hertz, testified that she had called Bell two or three times before the wreck, asking him to bring the Mercedes in for maintenance.
She said Bell, a regular customer, had achieved the company’s platinum membership status, which meant he got special attention, including luxury vehicles and other perks.
Jonathan Eisenstat, an associate medical examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, testified that he performed an autopsy on Gutierrez’s body and she’d suffered skull and rib fractures, among other injuries, consistent with a car wreck.
He added that her cause of death was blunt impact injuries of the head and torso.
Eisenstat said he did not examine Gutierrez’s body to determine whether she’d had a heart attack, diabetic episode, or other natural event that may have caused the wreck.
Others who testified included: Forsyth County Sheriff’s traffic investigator Ron Tomblin; Bill Peek Jr., shop foreman at RBM of Atlanta North; and Mary Beth Horton of the GBI.