A gruesome photo of Jonathon “JT” Taylor, bloodied and lifeless inside his BMW, was mistakenly displayed on Wednesday to the jurors who will be asked to return a verdict in the trial of Charles and Kimberley Matthews.
The Matthewses, a Raleigh couple who opened their Vance Street home to dozens of people attending their daughter’s wedding and reception on June 29, 2014, are on trial in Wake County Superior Court, accused of aiding and abetting underage drinking.
Taylor had been at their home after a last-minute invitation from Thomas Matthews, a Ravenscroft high school classmate.
In the hours before Taylor’s death, the teens downed a fifth of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey whiskey in less than an hour in a neighbor’s yard with two teenage girls. Taylor also was drinking wine at the wedding reception inside the Matthewses home, according to witnesses who have testified during the first two days of the trial.
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The question for the jury will be the extent of responsibility that adults have for policing and monitoring teens inside their homes who imbibe.
When prosecutor Jason Waller, an assistant Wake County district attorney, mistakenly flashed the photo of the lifeless Taylor onto a courtroom screen, a loud gasp in the courtroom gallery immediately halted the proceedings.
Jurors were sent out of the room as defense attorney Hart Miles called for a mistrial. The photo had not been introduced into evidence and Miles argued that because of the gruesome nature it would unduly prejudice jurors. He argued that his clients would not be able to get a fair trial.
Judge Osmond Smith, who is presiding over the trial, spoke with prosecutors and defense attorneys privately in his chambers and then returned to the bench to poll jurors.
Jurors assured the judge that they could and would exclude the image from their consideration of the case.
Miles questioned whether that could happen.
“I don’t think you can unring that bell,” Miles told the judge a couple of times when jurors were not present.
Despite his arguments, Smith rejected the mistrial request.
The trial is one that has garnered widespread attention because it raises questions about the measure of responsibility that adults have when underage drinking occurs inside a home filled with wedding guests and caterers. The defense has argued that the Matthewses are being “selectively” and “maliciously” prosecuted, in part, because Taylor was the only child of a state trooper. Charles Matthews is a Raleigh-based neurologist.
Police on Wednesday recounted seeing Greg Taylor, the father of the victim, at the accident scene. When officers let the trooper and his wife, Carrie, know that their son was dead, Greg Taylor put his face in his hands and repeated, “This is not supposed to happen to me,” according to Eric Sweden, a Raleigh police sergeant who was investigating the wreck off Hunting Ridge Road in North Raleigh. Law enforcement officers suspect Taylor, or “JT” as he was known among friends, was going 89 mph when the car left the road and landed against a tree.
Taylor did not survive the single-car wreck. His blood-alcohol level, according to court documents, was about 2 1/2 times the 0.08 threshold for impairment.
On Wednesday, prosecutors questioned teachers, a wedding photographer and other wedding guests who had encountered the four teens the Matthewses are accused of aiding in their underage drinking.
Their accounts were varied.
A yoga instructor who lived near the Matthewses and was a friend of the daughter who got married recalled a conversation with Jonathon “JT” Taylor inside the library of the home. The yoga instructor recalled that Taylor looked “stoned” and drunk and asked Taylor whether he planned to stay at the Matthewses or get a ride home, instead of driving himself.
Taylor told the yoga instructor that he was not driving, and no one has testified as to why the teen changed his mind. Taylor also texted his mother, asking his parents to come get him. Kimberley Matthews, according to Carrie Taylor, said she had asked JT Taylor not to drive, too.
The testimony during the past several days has showed that several wedding guests noticed the teens drinking.
The two teenage girls who were among the group drinking the whiskey became sick. In one case emergency workers were called to attend to one of the girls in the Matthewses’ basement when police began an investigation into the party after the fatal wreck.
None of the caterers serving wine at the party has been charged in the case. The ABC clerk who sold the whiskey to Thomas Matthews was charged initially, but the Wake County district attorney’s office dismissed that case.