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Trial begins for driver in accident that killed Concord teacher 

  • The intersection of Allenstown Road and School Street looking north, where retired teacher Michael Phelps was killed on his motorcycle after being hit by a car in June 2014. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Jordan Heath said in court Tuesday that her brakes failed when she ran a red light and passed through an intersection in Allenstown and hit a motorcyclist, who later died atConcord Hospital. JEREMY BLACKMAN / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/25/2016 12:12:04 AM

Nearly two years after retired teacher Michael Phelps was hit and killed while maneuvering his motorcycle through a busy intersection in Allenstown, the driver who broadsided him has gone on trial, facing allegations that she was texting at the time.

The driver, Jordan Heath, 24, of Concord claims her brakes gave out as she approached the crossing, leaving her helpless as the Ford Focus she was driving blew through a red light and ploughed into Phelps, who was turning left onto Allenstown Road. The accident occurred about 8 a.m. on June 30, 2014.

“Mr. Phelps did not deserve to die that day,” public defender Hanna Kinne told jurors in Merrimack County Superior Court on Tuesday. “But Jordan didn’t commit a crime that day, either.”

Kinne said the defense plans to use testimony from a crash reconstruction expert who reviewed the evidence and determined that the Focus, which Heath was borrowing from her mother’s boyfriend, had a mechanical defect. The rear brakes were leaking brake fluid and would never have passed inspection, Kinne said. The car was seven years old and had more than 100,000 miles on it.

Assistant County Attorney George Waldron disputed the finding and said Heath never tried to stop. He noted that Heath had used the brakes earlier in the day, and presented testimony from one witness who claimed she never saw Heath’s rear brake lights flash as she went through the intersection.

“There was nothing wrong with her brakes,” Waldron said. “She simply didn’t use them.”

Authorities have never contended that alcohol or other substances factored into the accident. Heath’s attorneys said Tuesday that she had just dropped off her infant child at her mother’s house in Pembroke and was driving to work.

Phelps, a former teacher at Rundlett Middle School and Concord High, was traveling east on a Honda VTX motorcycle when the collision occurred. Heath’s car was traveling south. The crash severed Phelps’s left leg below the knee and sent him flying into the air, according to witness accounts. He died later at Concord Hospital.

Phelps’s son said his father had been going to the hospital as it was. A recent survivor of prostate cancer, he volunteered at the Payson Center for Cancer Care, counseling patients, the son, Todd Phelps, said.

Todd Phelps said the family had agreed to offer Heath a plea deal of two years in prison, but that she turned it down. Heath is facing a Class B felony, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 3½ to 7 years.

“We understand that her intent was not to go out and kill somebody,” Todd Phelps said. “We get that . . . but we want her to experience some loss to get a sense of what we’re going through.”

“I lost my best friend that day,” he added.

The accident shook friends and former colleagues of the older Phelps, who recalled him as a beloved English teacher with an uncanny ability to relate to students. In addition to teaching, he helped coach track and football, and served as an adviser for the drama club at Rundlett. He was 66 when he died.

Heath is not the first to be prosecuted in New Hampshire for distracted driving. In 2013, the state Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a woman charged with the same offense, negligent homicide, after she struck and killed a person while driving on Central Street in Franklin.

That driver, Lynn Dion, was talking on the phone at the time of the crash, according to prosecutors. She was sentenced to one to three years in prison.

The next year, in November 2014, a 21-year-old Mont Vernon man was found not guilty of negligent homicide in the death of former Amherst Fire Chief John Bachman. Prosecutors said Hobbs had been texting, but defense attorneys said phone logs showed no activity during around the time of the crash.

Heath’s trial is scheduled to last four days.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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