By Moses Leos III
A series of calming breaths and the sign of tears are what Nathanael Eddleman exhibited Thursday as he exited a Hays County Courtroom a free man.
After five hours of deliberation, a jury found Eddleman, 19, not guilty of failing to render aid in the 2013 hit-and-run death of Philip Duran.
The verdict closes a two-year emotional saga that has split the community.
Upon hearing the verdict, members of Eddleman’s family and friends shed tears, sobs and shared hugs. Eddleman breathed a heavy sigh of relief as the verdict was announced. Todd Nickle, who represented Eddleman in the case, declined to offer a comment after the trial ended. The Eddleman family exited the courthouse without speaking to the media.
Friends and family of the Duran family sat in stunned silence soon after the verdict was read. Rebecca Duran, Philip Duran’s mother, swiftly exited the courtroom moments after the verdict was announced.
In a statement from the office of Hays County District Attorney Wes Mau, the jury’s ruling held that the prosecution “failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that Eddleman knew, or should have known that the collision caused the injury of a person.
“While the verdict is disappointing to us and to Mr. Duran’s family, we know that the jurors considered the evidence carefully and performed their duties to the best of their abilities,” Mau said in a written statement.
Prior to deliberations, the jury heard closing arguments from the state and the defense; both sides closed their cases on Wednesday.
The jury had to weigh and unanimously approve four elements leading to the charge of failure to render aid. The defense and the state agreed on three of the four elements: 1.) Eddleman was involved in an accident, 2.) the accident resulted in Duran’s death, and 3.) Eddleman failed to stop and offer medical assistance to Duran.
What was contested were two scenarios: whether Eddleman knew he hit Duran, or whether a reasonable person would have known that an accident with a person occurred and the person was injured. The jury found enough doubt in that fourth element to acquit Eddleman.
The teen told investigators his cell phone charger distracted him while driving his Chevy Suburban along FM 1626 in Kyle on April 27, 2013, — his 17th birthday.
He struck what he believed to be a pole, but kept going to his friend Dennis Collins’ apartment. Investigators brought Eddleman in for questioning two day later. During that meeting, Det. Jacob Luria told Eddleman he was there because he hit a person, not a pole, and that person did not make it.
Duran was jogging while wearing his orange reflective vest along the road that evening when he was struck by a vehicle. Forensic evidence links Eddleman’s SUV to Duran’s death. Jurors heard testimony that Eddleman could have lived for about 10 minutes after the accident or he could have died within a few seconds.
“Eddleman didn’t know there was a Mr. Duran,” Nickle said during his closing argument. “He never had any idea there was a Mr. Duran that night. So he didn’t stop.”
But Nickle, who stood defiant in front of the jury, claimed evidence wasn’t there to convict Eddleman under either scenario.
Nickle argued that Eddleman “clearly didn’t” have any idea beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew someone was injured in the accident.
He also asked jurors to recall that element, and not whether a reasonable person would have stopped.
Nickle argued that Eddleman believed he hit a pole. He said that it was “not unreasonable” for Eddleman to believe that, as he’s driven through the area multiple times and saw only poles with road signs.
Since Eddleman didn’t see anything in his rear view mirror, Nickle argued it was reasonable for Eddleman to believe he had hit a pole.
Nickle also pointed out the speed of the accident and how quickly it occurred.
“It’s not this calm, collected analysis of everything we get to do in hindsight, he argued. “It happens incredibly fast.
He also claimed Eddleman’s demeanor after the fact wasn’t consistent with hitting a person. He told the jury Eddleman didn’t try to conceal the accident. Nickle asked the jury why Eddleman would take a “murder weapon” to the Hays High parking lot two days after the accident. He maintained Eddleman’s demeanor didn’t change until he was informed by police what he had hit.
In its closing argument, the prosecution contended there was not a pole in the area of the accident, which refutes Eddleman’s claim. There was also no evidence that Eddleman drove into the grass, bolstering the state’s argument that a reasonable person should have known they didn’t hit a pole. They maintained that based on the damage done to the vehicle, it didn’t come from anything except a person.
Mau questioned the jury on a smear found on the hood of the SUV that was found to derive from Duran’s DNA. He asked the jury how could that DNA end up on the vehicle?
“How could Philip Duran’s body have removed the antenna, the mirror, and bumped the front of the car, and that defendant not have known he had hit something that came up over his hood and tore up parts of his car?” Mau said. “That’s not what a reasonable person would do.”
Mau also claimed there was a responsibility for a reasonable person to stop when in such an accident.
“There is a responsibility to be reasonable,” Mau told jurors. “There is a reasonability that if a reasonable person would have known, because a reasonable person would not have driven off and maintained their ignorance, then that person is responsible for failing to stop and render aid.”
Mau said while dark outside, if Eddleman had stopped, he would have seen Duran’s body. The defense claimed the lack of lighting and high weeds on FM 1626 led to other people passing by the body.
The DA also used a portion of the recording with Kyle Police where Eddleman said he passed by the crime scene the day after the accident, but didn’t stop.
“He knows that location is where the accident happened. He’s got to know,” Mau said to the jury. “That’s where debris from his car is on the side of the road. He sees his side mirror is missing. He undoubtedly notices his headlight has come out, and his antenna is gone. But he doesn’t stop.”
Mau also asked the jury if it was reasonable to believe that Eddleman was completely distracted for four seconds. He argued that even distracted drivers look at the road occasionally.
“I can barely walk and close my eyes for three seconds without being worried I might hit something,” Mau said. “If Eddleman, in the dark of night, took his eyes off the road for three-and-a-half to four seconds, and never saw anything that he was about to strike a person, is that reasonable?”
In his statement, Mau said, “If any good can come from the tragedy of Mr. Duran’s death, it is only as a object lesson to others. It is our hope that this case will at least serve as a reminder to other people, young and old, that the decisions they make on the road can have permanent consequences to not only their own, but also the lives of many others with whom they share those roads,” Mau said.