A Fort Wayne man escaped the most serious charge against him Thursday when jurors found him not guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of a 60-year-old man in a road rage incident last year.
Brandon M. Cook, 28, and Orlando Fernandez each were driving east Aug. 8 on U.S. 30, near Goshen Road, in an area narrowed to one lane because of construction. Cook's Dodge pickup was behind Fernandez's Ford Mustang, and witnesses testified they saw the truck drive to the left side of the car and stop.
Cook left the truck and punched Fernandez – who had a heart condition – several times in the face, leaving the older man who was on his way to celebrate his adult son's birthday bloodied and bruised. Fernandez died shortly after emergency crews were called to the scene around 5:30 p.m.
Naomi Cramer, Cook's girlfriend, was a passenger in the pickup and told investigators the driver of the Mustang “brake checked” and “flipped them off.”
Police arrested Cook about a week later in Panama City Beach, Florida, where he fled after learning from news reports that Fernandez had died.
Jurors deliberated about five hours before delivering a not guilty verdict on the manslaughter charge, which carried a penalty of up to six years in prison. They convicted him of misdemeanor battery, and Cook could be sentenced to a year in prison when he is sentenced next week.
Cook, dressed in a blue shirt with a blue tie, did not react when the verdict was read.
“We're relieved,” defense attorney Bart Arnold said, noting that Cook's father died as the case was being prepared for trial. “There's a lot of sympathy that goes out to the Fernandez family. There's a whole lot of tragedy in this case.
“I am happy for Brandon. This is the verdict he deserved.”
Members of Fernandez's family declined to comment as they left the courtroom.
Prosecutors also declined to comment.
Two doctors testified during a three-day trial that punches thrown by Cook led directly to the heart attack that killed the older man. Allen County Deputy Prosecutors Kamia Shenoy, Tesa Helge and Tom Chaille seized on that, telling jurors Cook's actions nearly define the state's involuntary manslaughter statute, which says a defendant is guilty of involuntary manslaughter if he or she kills another person while committing or attempting to commit battery.
“This fact pattern is exactly why this charge exists,” Chaille said. “When you set something in motion, you're responsible for where it ends up.”
Arnold never challenged witness testimony and statements from police and prosecutors that said Cook struck Fernandez. Instead, he argued no one – including the doctors – had information on Fernandez's mental or emotional state leading up to the altercation. It's not clear if the punches caused the heart attack, he said.
“Did my client start a chain of events?” Arnold asked. “We may never know for sure.”