Wibbels v. Commonwealth, 082417 KYSC, 2016-SC-000103-MR

Docket Nº:2016-SC-000103-MR
Attorney:COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Stefan Bing Gess Mattingly 85 Atchison, PSC William Gary Crabtree Crabtree & Goforth COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky David Bryan Abner Assistant Attorney General
Case Date:August 24, 2017
Court:Supreme Court of Kentucky




No. 2016-SC-000103-MR

Supreme Court of Kentucky

August 24, 2017


          RENDERED March 23, 2017


          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Stefan Bing Gess Mattingly 85 Atchison, PSC William Gary Crabtree Crabtree & Goforth

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky David Bryan Abner Assistant Attorney General


         A jury in Laurel County convicted Justin Wibbels of wanton murder. Consistent with the jury's sentencing recommendations, the trial court fixed his sentence at confinement for twenty years.

         Wibbels now appeals as a matter of right, Kentucky Constitution § 110(2)(b), arguing that the trial court erred by: (1) denying his motion for a directed verdict; and (2) denying his request to introduce evidence of the victim's family's ill will toward him. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND1

         On the morning of June 16, 2014, the Appellant, Justin Wibbels, was traveling westbound in Laurel County on KY 30, a two-lane road with an emergency lane on each side. As he traveled in his extended cab pick-up truck, he approached and attempted to pass Laura Jones.2 However, upon Wibbels initiating his pass, Jones was forced to pass the vehicle in front of her, which had unexpectedly pulled out into her path at a much slower speed from an intersecting side road. Jones passed the car and returned to her proper lane of travel in the westbound lane. Wibbels did not return to his proper lane. Instead, he moved to the left, into the eastbound emergency lane.3

         Mark Sulfridge, a motorist driving westbound in front of Jones and Wibbels, testified that he observed Wibbels driving in the eastbound emergency lane as oncoming traffic passed him. Wibbels then moved from the eastbound emergency lane to the westbound lane behind Sulfridge. Sulfridge testified that he was traveling about sixty miles per hour, and Wibbels passed him "like [he] was sitting still.” Wibbels overtook both Sulfridge and the vehicle in front of Sulfridge, as a line of five or six vehicles approached in the oncoming, eastbound lane. Sulfridge testified that, upon seeing the traffic approaching, he began to slow down so that Wibbels had space to re-enter the westbound lane. Sulfridge also testified that Wibbels pulled into the eastbound lane to pass.Sulfridge, the vehicle in front him, and the vehicle in front of that. However, instead of re-entering the westbound lane, Wibbels, without slowing down, moved into the eastbound emergency lane for a second time.

         James Belt was just approaching KY 30 from an intersecting road to the south (to Wibbels's left while he drove in the eastbound emergency lane).4 Belt testified that, as he sat at the stop sign, preparing to turn into the eastbound lane of KY 30, he looked right and saw Wibbels approaching rapidly. Belt testified that Wibbels's truck "came through so fast it shook [his] truck" and "rocked it from side to side." Belt also testified that, when Wibbels passed him, there were no vehicles directly next to Wibbels, which would have prevented Wibbels from returning to the westbound lane of traffic.5 Belt pulled into the eastbound lane and, through his rearview mirror, observed Wibbels move into the eastbound lane and then back into the eastbound emergency lane, while continuing westbound. Belt testified that Wibbels could have moved into the open westbound lane but returned to the eastbound emergency lane.

         As Wibbels drove in the eastbound emergency lane, Timothy Berry was traveling westbound on KY 30 ahead of Wibbels and Sulfridge. Through his rearview mirror, Berry could see Wibbels driving westbound in the eastbound emergency lane as oncoming traffic passed Wibbels. Berry testified that he was, traveling at fifty-five miles per hour, with a line of four or five cars behind him, and Wibbels was "catching [up to him] like [he] was sitting still." About this time, a new line of four or five vehicles appeared around a curve, traveling in the eastbound lane. Berry testified that he moved over to the right, partially in the westbound emergency lane, to allow Wibbels to return to the westbound lane, but Wibbels remained in the eastbound emergency lane.

         The first vehicle in the line of oncoming vehicles passed Wibbels. However, the second vehicle, a utility van driven by the victim, Jerry Thompson, suddenly darted into the eastbound emergency lane. No evidence was presented establishing why Thompson moved abruptly into the emergency lane. The two vehicles collided in the grassy area to the side of the eastbound, emergency lane, killing Thompson instantly.

         Berry testified that the collision occurred just opposite his vehicle and that, upon seeing the collision, he returned to the scene to check on the drivers. Berry asked Wibbels why he was passing in the emergency lane, to which Wibbels replied that he was "late and in a hurry." Wibbels testified that he never made this reply to Berry. He stated that he had to be at work by 9:00 A.M. and he was not running late, evidenced by the fact that, although it took him thirty to forty minutes to travel from his home to work, it was only 8:00 A.M. at the time of the collision.

         Wibbels was subsequently convicted by a Laurel County jury of wanton murder, and was sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment. This appeal followed. We set forth additional facts as necessary below.


         Because the issues presented require us to apply different standards of review, we set forth the appropriate standard as necessary when addressing each issue.

         III. ...

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