BREAKING NEWS

Jury finds Keith Furne guilty in texting while in driving fatal crash

He faces up to 25 years in prison

Keith Furne, left, speaks with defense attorney Alfred Willett during his trial at the Story County Courthouse in Nevada, Iowa, on Thursday, April 12, 2018. Furne is charged with reckless driving resulting in serious injury and two counts of homicide by vehicle in the 2016 vehicle crash that killed Selena Apodaca, 16, Isabella Severson, 13, and seriously injured their mother Jennifer Perez and her other daughters, Elysia Severson, 14, and a 4-year-old. Furne is accused of texting while driving causing the crash resulting in the deaths and injuries. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Keith Furne, left, speaks with defense attorney Alfred Willett during his trial at the Story County Courthouse in Nevada, Iowa, on Thursday, April 12, 2018. Furne is charged with reckless driving resulting in serious injury and two counts of homicide by vehicle in the 2016 vehicle crash that killed Selena Apodaca, 16, Isabella Severson, 13, and seriously injured their mother Jennifer Perez and her other daughters, Elysia Severson, 14, and a 4-year-old. Furne is accused of texting while driving causing the crash resulting in the deaths and injuries. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

NEVADA, Iowa — After just three hours of deliberations, a jury Wednesday found Keith Furne was text messaging when he slammed his pickup truck into a stopped car in 2016 north of Robins, killing two teen sisters and badly injuring a third.

Furne, 35, of Cedar Rapids, was found guilty of two counts of homicide by vehicle and one count of reckless driving resulting in serious injury.

He had no visible reaction when the verdict was read in Story County District Court, where the trial was moved. He faces up to 25 years in prison.

Jennifer Perez, the mother of Selena Apodaca, 16, and Isabella Severson, 13, said she felt relief as the verdict was read. She said it has been a struggle to move on since the Nov. 3, 2016, crash but she has to for her two other girls — Elysia, now 16, who suffered permanent injuries, and 6-year-old Mia, who had minor injuries.

“All five of us died that day,” Perez, with tears in her eyes, said outside the courtroom. “We have to learn how to continue to live our lives.”

Perez said she’s “happy the facts came out and the jury agreed” that Furne’s actions were reckless — but could have been prevented.

Furne’s attorneys declined to comment after the verdict. One, Al Willett, said he may comment after sentencing.

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The verdict underscores the gravity of a phenomenon that a national public service advertising campaign and lawmakers across the country have been trying for years to reverse.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, 3,450 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2016 involving distracted drivers — which includes texting while driving.

In Iowa, months after the Linn County fatal crash, legislators in 2017 agreed to make texting while driving a primary offense — meaning authorities did not first need to spot some other violation to be able to pull over a driver. But they rejected a more comprehensive measure that would have allowed only hands-free use of phones while driving.

Iowa House Transportation Committee member Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Marion, said Wednesday’s verdict could lead lawmakers to eventually revisit the hands-free phone requirement.

“We didn’t have the votes for that,” she said, “but something like this might spur a conversation next year. We made a good step in addressing the problem, but I would say it definitely needs another conversation.”

First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks and Linn County Assistant Attorney Elena Wolford said after the verdict their thoughts were with Perez and her family.

They also wanted to thank jury members for the service and the staff of the Story County Courthouse for their help during the trial.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Fae Hoover-Grinde said a sentencing hearing for Furne is likely in six to eight weeks.

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Evidence at trial showed Furne was driving 60 mph west on County Home Road until just before striking a Chevrolet Aveo driven by Perez. She was stopped behind a truck, waiting to turn left on North Troy Road.

Furne rear-ended the Aveo. His pickup continued another 670 feet before stopping.

The prosecution argued that Furne, according to cellphone records, was texting up to the moment of impact. Maybanks, during his closing argument Wednesday, said Furne’s Silverado was going 60 mph up to a half second before the crash, based on the vehicle’s data retrieval.

Selena and Isabella died from massive blunt force injuries.

Elysia Severson, who was with her mother after the verdict, said she suffered major brain and spinal cord injuries and lost mobility on the right side of her body.

“She’s my miracle,” Perez said as she put her arm around Elysia.

Maybanks also noted Furne didn’t brake before the crash — evidence from the data retrieval system doesn’t support it.

Maybanks pointed out that Furne admitted to authorities he "probably" was texting at the time of crash. Linn County sheriff’s Deputy Todd Egli asked Furne if he was sure and he said yes. But then Furne then said he didn’t remember.

The defense throughout the trial disputed that Furne was texting up until impact.

Furne told police he sent a text that day right before he closed the gate at the Tuma Soccer Complex, where he worked, and it was one a one-word text: “Yep.”

During his closing argument, Willett reminded jurors of opposing theories of how the cellphone ended up on the floor board behind the driver’s seat.

Coe College professor Steven Feller had said it was “more likely” the phone had been in the truck’s cupholder — as Furne maintained — and not in Furne’s hand, as authorities said.

James Q. Lynch of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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