In Depth

WTVT-TV, Tampa, & Doug Smith: ‘Small Town Injustice’

The complex legal and emotional saga at the heart of WTVT-TV’s “Small Town Justice” began on May 11, 2001, when a fatal accident on a Florida state highway killed Nona Moore and her 8-year-old daughter Lindsey. Two other girls survived the crash, which occurred when the driver of a tomato truck rolled over the family van.

The driver, Jean Claude Meus, was a Haitian immigrant who had lived in the United States for 20 years. Although drugs or alcohol did not play a part in the crash, a jury ruled that he had fallen asleep at the wheel and sentenced him to 15 years in a maximum-security prison, a sentence equivalent to those handed down in many fatal DUI cases.

After he was incarcerated, WTVT, the Fox affiliate in Tampa, Fla., got a call, and investigative reporter Doug Smith and producer Lisa Blegen set out to determine if the punishment fit the crime. Over the course of two and a half years, they did nearly two dozen stories on the case centered in Wauchula, Fla., a rural town in the central part of the state built around family, faith and football.

“We thought, ‘Wow, what a harsh sentence.’ That was initially it. He really got hammered,” said Ms. Blegen. “He said he wasn’t asleep. We took a closer look at sentence, and a closer look at the investigation. Even the victim’s sisters didn’t think he committed a crime. How is the public served by this? The problems with the evidence came out later.”

During their jailhouse interviews, Mr. Meus said after a car cut him off, he swerved, lost control and tipped over onto the Moores’ vehicle. He said he had slept for 10 hours before the wreck.

Court records show four of the six jurors had read about the accident before the trial, and the jury took less than an hour to reach a guilty verdict on two counts of vehicular manslaughter.

Mr. Smith and Ms. Blegen wondered if the defendant got a fair trial from the all-white jury in a town where emotions were running high.

They attempted to interview the jurors, but initially only one agreed to speak—and admitted the prosecution did not prove that Mr. Meus fell asleep. The prosecutor’s office wouldn’t talk. Family members of the victims said the truck driver’s deep sorrow over the accident was punishment enough, and that they forgave him.

“When we looked at the investigation with a critical eye, we found that the Florida Highway Patrol had made numerous mistakes,” said Mr. Smith. “The lead investigator went to high school with Nona Moore. That was the small-town nature of the case. Everyone knew and loved the Moores, two people were dead, but Jean Claude Meus didn’t get a fair shake.”

The investigative team went on to expose a story the jury never heard from an eyewitness to the accident who came forward after the first televised report. They discovered that Florida Highway Patrol investigators did not interview Juan Otero, the first person on the scene, and his friend—who happened to be volunteer firefighters. They were engaged in rescue efforts and saw Mr. Meus come out of the cab of the truck. An estimated 100 people were at the scene of the accident, and investigators said they did not need to interview all of them.

Ms. Blegen and Mr. Smith also brought in a traffic reconstruction expert, Wiley Howell, who showed that diagrams of the accident presented to the jury were not drawn to scale and therefore were flawed evidence.

“That diagram was one critical piece of evidence that landed him behind bars. It was simply an approximation,” Mr. Smith said. “That’s how you do it in a small town. It was hand-drawn, not a computer simulation.”

Mr. Meus, who always said he believed in the justice system, appealed the verdict and, after three years behind bars, walked out of Hardee County Jail a free man in April 2008.

“For both of us, the experience has had a profound effect, because he was such a positive person despite the obstacles he faced,” said Ms. Blegen. “He always believed the truth would set him free. It’s amazing to meet a guy like that with such faith.”