TAMPA — One early morning 16 months ago, an Audi R8 ripped along Interstate-4 through Tampa. Florida Highway Patrol investigators then pegged his speed, based on on-board computer data, at 154 mph.
Just before N 50th Street, the sports car slammed into the back of a Toyota Camry, throwing the other vehicle into the air and causing it to explode.
Camry driver Douglas Eugene Cade Jr. and passenger Jason Rzechula, both of St. Petersburg, were killed.
On Thursday, a jury decided that the driver of the Audi, Jorge Britton, was criminally responsible for their deaths. The panel of four men and two women deliberated approximately 2.5 hours before convicting Britton of impaired manslaughter, homicide while driving a motor vehicle and other charges stemming from the crash. December 2021.
Britton, 36, will be sentenced on May 25. He faces 30 years to life in prison.
State prosecutors claimed Britton was drunk at the time of the crash and said his driving was so reckless that he was guilty of vehicular homicide. Britton's defense attorney, Jeffrey Brown, argued there was no evidence that Britton was intoxicated to the point of being impaired and suggested that his driving simply amounted to a culpable negligence.
“To find him guilty because he was driving at high speed is not justice,” Brown told the jury. "It's not in accordance with the law."
The focus was on what Britton had done in the six hours before the accident, how much alcohol he had consumed and whether that was enough to make him intoxicated.
A blood alcohol test administered about an hour after the crash indicated that Britton's blood alcohol level was near the 0.08 limit at which state law presumes impaired. A second test about two hours later showed his blood alcohol level at 0.067.
"He wasn't getting drunk. He wasn't drunk. He was intoxicated,” Assistant District Attorney Darrell Dirks said in closing arguments.
Daniel Buffington, a pharmacologist who testified as a defense witness, said the timing of Britton's drinking would not have been enough for him to be impaired.
The verdict capped a three-day trial in which Britton appeared in the witness box and claimed he had had little to drink the night before, said he was not drunk and denied driving. reckless way.
He too was injured, but survived, as did two passengers.
The collision happened hours after he attended a Tampa Bay Lightning game, where he said he had a beer, and a rally afterwards at the Penthouse Club, a gentlemen's club on Westshore Boulevard.
He said he was trying to get into cryptocurrency and went to the club to meet colleagues who knew crypto.
"I'm an engineer," Britton said. “I build houses from scratch. That's what I was doing.
Britton said he stopped at the Penthouse Club around 11 p.m. and met his colleagues. They shared a bottle of tequila. Britton testified that he consumed no more than two drinks diluted with Red Bull energy drink and ice.
His last sip was a little before 1:30 a.m. He decided to go to the Hard Rock Casino to play blackjack and eat at a noodle bar.
He left in an Audi with his companion and another woman who had joined them.
Investigators later discovered that the car had a fake vehicle identification number and was not properly registered. Even though the car was a two-seater, the women shared the passenger seat.
They headed east on Interstate-275. Britton said he stepped on the accelerator pedal going up the on-ramp, but slowed down as he rejoined the freeway. He estimated he reached 100 mph, but said he slowed down as he joined the freeway.
He cruised along I-275 and then moved onto I-4, heading east.
The speed limit was around 55 mph. Britton acknowledged that he might be moving a little faster than that, but said his speed was not excessive.
He recalled other cars and a tractor-trailer, but claimed no recollection of the crash, which happened around 1:40 a.m.
"You made some really bad decisions that night, didn't you?" Dirks, the prosecutor, asked in cross-examination. Britton insisted he was not intoxicated.
"I may have been a little careless, but not reckless," he said. "But not to the point where I could hurt someone or take the lives of two irreplaceable people."
Dirks asked: If he crashed into them, especially at over 150 mph, wouldn't that be good evidence of reckless driving?
"I'm not an expert...So I don't know how to answer that question," Britton said.
Tampa Police Officer Steven Zawacki entered I-275 from the N Dale Mabry Freeway around the same time Britton passed. He was returning home at the end of a 12-hour patrol shift. He remembered seeing the Audi and another car speeding by. He estimated the Audi was going over 100 mph.
After Zawacki turned onto I-4, the sky lit up. He saw flames and debris on the highway. The officer's body-worn camera recorded video of what he saw as he got out of his car.
The jury saw the video, which showed the Camry as it sat facing west in the eastbound lanes of the freeway. Flames engulfed its interior, rising 10 feet high. A horn sounds.
Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Travis Donakowski testified that the Audi hit the Camry with such force that Cade and Rzechula were killed instantly.