Amusement park manager found guilty of reckless homicide
Jury opts for lesser charge over death of woman on ride
By Emanuella Grinberg
SEVIERVILLE, Tennessee (Court TV) -- A jury took less than an hour Monday to convict a former amusement park manager of reckless homicide for a woman's fatal fall from a pendulum-like ride, The Hawk, in March 2004.
After four days of testimony from 26 witnesses, the panel of nine men and three women opted not to convict Charles Stanley Martin of second-degree murder for the death of June Alexander, who fell 60 feet to her death from a ride after her harness came loose in midair as her family watched.
Martin, 57, faced up to 25 years for the murder charge. Sentencing on the lesser charge will be determined by Judge Richard Vance on July 26, but could be up to four years or as little as probation. The jury also levied a maximum $5,000 fine against Martin.
Save for a slight shrug of the shoulders, the former serviceman in the Minutemen Missile Silos offered no reaction to the 8:30 p.m. verdict, similar to his family and the victim's relatives in the audience.
When they left the courtroom, however, Alexander's sisters and daughter burst into tears and consoled each other as they hugged prosecutors and the Pigeon Forge Police Dept.
Alexander, 50, was celebrating her son Cody's 15th birthday at the park on March 14, 2004, when the accident occurred. Cody and her sister, Judy Sprinkles, were aboard the ride, while another sister watched from below.
That sister, Gail Young, reacted tearfully to the verdict Monday.
"I have mixed feelings, but now at least I know my sister's death was not in vain," she said. "This helps make sure no one has to go through the horror that we went through."
Prosecutors argued that the safety system on The Hawk, which swings higher and higher before turning 360 degrees, had been tampered with, causing the ride to take off even though Alexander's safety harness was not secured.
Jumper cables were found in the system's electrical panel which expert witnesses testified had bypassed the backup safety mechanisms.
The state argued that Martin, as the general manager of the Rockin' Raceway in Pigeon Forge, was the sole staff member with access to the panel and motivation to alter it.
In his testimony, however, Martin insisted that he had never altered the system, nor seen the jumper cables, and that many others had access to the panel.
Several witnesses testified that "Stan was the man" responsible for maintenance on the rides in the park, one of many tourist attractions in the town better known as the home of Dolly Parton and her amusement park, Dollywood.
The specter of the country diva's namesake hung over the trial from the start, when a Dollywood employee was dismissed from jury selection and victim witness coordinator Tina Catlett was identified as one of Dolly Parton's first cousins.
Prosecutors frequently alluded to Martin's struggle to keep his park competitive next to Dollywood, even calling its chief safety inspector, Robert Fox, to compare Dollywood's safety standards for maintaining its rides to those of Rockin' Raceway.
Outside the courtroom, Sevier County District Attorney General Al Schmutzer said he believed the strongest piece of evidence against the defendant was a videotape made by Phil Castellano, a technician for The Hawk's Italian manufacturer, Zamperla.
The video demonstrated the effect of the defective cables, which allowed the ride to take off without the safety harnesses locked in place. Castellano said that if the ride's automatic safety mechanisms were in place, The Hawk never would have begun its deadly ascent.
Defense attorneys attempted to shift the blame to Castellano, alleging he was protecting his company's interests in the faulty ride.
They claimed Castellano knew the ride was unsafe and pointed to defects in the platform and motor which Castellano returned to fix, perhaps giving him the opportunity to install the faulty jumper cables.
The defense also pointed out a "glaring omission" in the prosecution video, which failed to show the ride running as it should under normal circumstances -- with all the safety harnesses securely locked in place and the jumper cables removed.
Sevier County Assistant District Attorney Steve Hawkins said he was pleased with the homicide conviction.
"We put out all the facts to the jury, and from there it was up to them to decide," he said.
Defense lawyers left court without commenting.
Martin remains free on bond until his sentencing.