Testimony begins in Greenfield ex-officer’s vehicular homicide trial

  • James Rode sits in a courtroom during the first day of his jury trial on Thursday. Rode is charged with negligent vehicular homicide stemming from an October 2017 crash that caused the death of James Arcellana, 29, of Hinsdale, N.H. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

  • A photo of former Greenfield Police Sgt. James Rode’s cruiser following the Oct. 1, 2017, crash. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

  • A photo of the 2010 Subaru Impreza driven by James Arcellana, 29, of Hinsdale, N.H., when it collided with a cruiser driven by then-Greenfield Police Sgt. James Rode. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

  • James Arcellana, 29, of Hinsdale, N.H., died as a result of injuries sustained during a collision with former Greenfield Police Sgt. James Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 1/23/2020 8:28:29 PM

GREENFIELD — The state took one day to make its case against James B. Rode, calling eight witnesses Thursday in the trial of the former Greenfield Police sergeant charged with negligent vehicular homicide as the result of a 2017 fatal incident.

First Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne questioned emergency medical personnel, law enforcement officials and the victim’s friend. Attorney Kevin Reddington, who is defending Rode, will make the defense’s case Friday in Greenfield District Court.

According to the Massachusetts State Police report filed by Trooper Joseph Ballou, Rode was driving south on High Street in response to a report of an erratic operator shortly after 8 p.m. on Oct. 1, 2017, when the police cruiser he was driving collided with a 2010 Subaru Impreza driven by James Arcellana, 29, of Hinsdale, N.H. Arcellana died three days later of blunt force trauma to the head.

Rode was arraigned in July 2018 on charges of negligent vehicular homicide and speeding. Motor vehicle homicide is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 2½ years in prison and carries a 15-year loss of a driver’s license if convicted.

Gagne told the Greenfield Recorder that Rode, 50, has been terminated from the Greenfield Police Department but has filed an appeal.

The jury was selected Tuesday, when opening statements were made. The trial resumed Thursday after a day off.

Gagne’s first witness was 32-year-old Gill resident Michael Palumbo, Arcellana’s close friend, who said he was Arcellana’s passenger at the time of the crash. Palumbo explained he and Arcellana had attended a New England Patriots game in Foxboro earlier that day and had returned some tailgating supplies at Palumbo’s parents’ home before deciding to go to dinner in downtown Turners Falls. They eventually changed their minds and opted to go to Greenfield to eat, crossing over the General Pierce Bridge and driving up Mountain Road before getting to the intersection of Sanderson and High streets in Greenfield.

Palumbo said the Impreza stopped at a stop sign at the intersection and he glanced to the left and right to determine traffic flow.

Arcellana proceeded to cross the intersection and Palumbo said the final thing he remembers before waking up while being pulled from a mangled vehicle was seeing a Greenfield Police cruiser “moving pretty fast” toward the intersection, which is yards from the Baystate Franklin Medical Center emergency room. He said he saw police lights but does not remember hearing sirens.

Palumbo recalled being wheeled on a stretcher to the hospital feeling like his chest was “on fire.” He said he required 10 staples on the back of his head and had a gash on his neck and a broken sternum. He was at the hospital five hours before being transported to a Springfield hospital, where he was released the next morning.

During cross-examination, Reddington asked Palumbo if he or Arcellana had consumed alcohol. Palumbo said there was alcohol in the vehicle but they had not consumed any. He also said he and Arcellana were not on their phones at the time of the crash.

Paramedic Rebecca Houle said she and her partner, EMT Geoffrey Hebert, were parking an ambulance outside the emergency room when she heard tires screeching and “a bunch of metal crashing.” She said she called dispatch to relay that she would go on foot to an accident across the street. She said she found “two heavily damaged vehicles” and saw a passenger, later identified as Palumbo, unresponsive and barely breathing, with his head resting on a car door post. She told Gagne she initially thought Palumbo was the driver and had been thrown to the passenger seat, but she soon discovered the impact had knocked Arcellana into the backseat.

“I honestly thought he was dead,” Houle said of Arcellana.

She said personnel from South County EMS had also responded and removed Arcellana from the vehicle.

Houle and Hebert, who tended to Rode at the scene, testified they did not hear sirens from Rode’s vehicle. Hebert said he helped Rode, who “was bleeding from the top of his head,” exit the cruiser. About a minute later, he said, a worker at adjacent Clinicial & Support Options approached the two, identified herself as a nurse and offered to stay with Rode while Hebert assisted Houle with Palumbo.

Trooper Ballou, who works as an internal affairs investigator, testified he took over the investigation for Lt. Tom Bakey after a few days because Bakey lives locally and it was desired to have someone a little more removed from the situation. Gagne played an audio recording of one of Ballou’s post-accident interviews with Rode, who said he activated his lights and sirens. Rode said he was concerned the reported erratic driver was intoxicated. He also said he believed he was driving at an appropriate speed.

There is no video footage of the crash, though surveillance captured by a camera at a car wash near the Police Station shows Rode leaving the station, with lights activated, 14 seconds after Officer Jay Butynski did the same.

Gagne’s final witness was Massachusetts State Police Maj. John Pinkham, who analyzed the data from the crash. He reported that Rode must have been driving 83.2 mph (114 feet per second) before the accident, and 63.3 mph at the moment of impact. This indicates, he said, that Rode applied the brakes in his cruiser.

“The brakes were working,” Pinkham said. “He was slowing down as fast as that cruiser could slow down.”

Pinkham said Rode covered 598 feet in the five seconds leading up to the crash.

He also explained he and other professionals recreated the accident sequence at the same time of day with similar vehicles and similar weather conditions. They learned that bushes near the Sanderson Street stop line obstructed the right-hand view up High Street, and Arcellana had stopped at the line and then crept up to the edge of the road to look for oncoming traffic. Pinkham said the distance from where Arcellana stopped to the point of impact was 37 feet. If Rode had been driving 74 mph or slower, he said, it would have taken 0.3 seconds longer to get to the intersection and he would have just missed Arcellana and Palumbo.

Gagne asked Pinkham if it’s possible that Arcellana “blew through” the stop sign and Pinkham said that scenario is not consistent with the accident’s statistics.

During cross-examination, Reddington scrutinized the numbers and asked Pinkham if it was possible Arcellana could have seen the cruiser’s emergency lights reflecting off shiny black telephone wire in the vicinity. Pinkham answered affirmatively.

Reddington also asked if Arcellana could have “darted out” into the intersection. Pinkham replied that Rode would not have had time to apply his brakes in that scenario.

Greenfield Deputy Chief Mark Williams, who was in attendance, declined to comment to the Greenfield Recorder.

Reddington said he thinks his client is “getting a very fair trial.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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