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Driver describes fatal crash that followed D.C. police chase

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/30/2022 Paul Duggan
Karon Hylton-Brown in 2019. (Khali Brown) Karon Hylton-Brown in 2019. (Khali Brown)

On the night of a traffic crash that still reverberates in the District two years later, a warehouse worker named Jonathan Bladimir Urrutia Chavez was driving along Kennedy Street NW, in the Brightwood Park neighborhood, headed home to Maryland after picking up his mother. It was Oct. 23, 2020, a little past 10 p.m., when a young man on a moped suddenly darted out of an alley, slamming into the passenger side of Chavez’s Toyota Scion.

Testifying in U.S. District Court in Washington on Wednesday, Chavez, now 25, recalled being questioned briefly by a police officer after the collision, which fatally injured the moped rider, 20-year-old Karon Hylton-Brown.

“I told [the officer] I was driving and he struck me, that I didn’t see him, that I just heard the impact,” Chavez said through a Spanish-language interpreter. The crash, which was violent enough to shatter half the Scion’s windshield and cause other extensive damage, propelled Hylton-Brown into the air, and he landed on the pavement, suffering a catastrophic brain injury, an autopsy showed.

“He struck the car, but I didn’t see him,” Chavez said again. “I just heard it.”

His half-hour of testimony — the first public account of the collision by anyone directly involved — came in the sixth week of the trial of two D.C. police officers who took part in a vehicular pursuit of Hylton-Brown that ended in the crash. Officer Terence Sutton is accused of second-degree murder for conducting a chase that prosecutors allege was illegally reckless and violated police policy, and Sutton and Lt. Andrew Zabavsky are charged with trying to cover up the incident afterward.

Hylton-Brown’s death sparked hours of civil unrest a few nights later, with scores of irate protesters converging on a police station in Northwest Washington, clashing with officers in riot gear.

At a time of raw racial tensions and mass demonstrations nationwide following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis the previous May, the crowd in D.C. was incensed by what it perceived as official misconduct against a young Black man. Protesters broke windows of the station, smashed police cars and shouted epithets at officers, who countered with pepper pellets and stun grenades.

The trial so far has featured a weeks-long parade of button-down witnesses — crash investigators, law enforcement policy experts, a police academy driving instructor — and hour upon hour of traffic video analysis. On Wednesday, Chavez’s brief turn in the courtroom offered an animated contrast. A heavyset man wearing black-framed eyeglasses, he walked to the witness stand in baggy chinos, a flaming-red Chicago Bulls cap and a crimson T-shirt emblazoned, “Blessed with Success.”

For him, the evening of Oct. 23 began normally, he testified. Earlier that Friday, he had worked his usual 8 a.m.-to-5 p.m. shift as a supervisor in a Triangle Quality Foods warehouse. Afterward, he said, he drove into the District to pick up his mother, who lived in the Rock Creek area and liked to spend weekends with him in his Maryland apartment.

As he and his mother headed from D.C. to Maryland, he said, his sister, his 3-year-old niece and a cousin were with them in the Scion. When a defense attorney asked if he had consumed any adult beverages before the crash, Chavez replied firmly, “I have never drunk alcohol.”

Sutton, 37, and Zabavsky, 54, both White, watched from the defendants’ table. The two have been suspended from the force without pay, pending the outcome of the trial and an internal administrative investigation.

Prosecutors allege that Sutton, driving an unmarked car, chased Hylton-Brown for three minutes, starting at 10:08 p.m., on a circuitous route in a four-block area of Brightwood Park after officers saw him riding the moped erratically on a sidewalk without a helmet. Police policy prohibits officers from pursuing a motorist merely because of a traffic violation. Zabavsky drove on parallel streets, trying to get ahead of Hylton-Brown to cut him off, prosecutors said.

Sutton’s attorney, J. Michael Hannon, has argued that the chase was not improper because the officers had good reason to believe that Hylton-Brown intended to commit a crime in Brightwood Park that night and they were obligated by department policy to stop and question him.

As Hylton-Brown lay unconscious, a prosecutor said, Sutton and Zabavsky conspired to “bury all this under a rock.” They misled their shift commander by describing the crash as relatively insignificant, downplaying Hylton-Brown’s injuries and omitting any mention of a chase, prosecutors said. Both officers are charged with obstructing justice and engaging in a coverup conspiracy.

Chavez said police at the scene asked him few questions, and quickly sent him on his way. Not until early the next morning did a detective show up at his door in Maryland and begin examining his damaged vehicle.

Chavez was called to testify by Hannon, in an apparent effort to help the defense case with the jury by emphasizing that Hylton-Brown’s death was caused by the collision with the Scion, not the preceding police chase. In his cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ahmed Muktadir Baset sought to show that Chavez was a law-abiding motorist who did nothing to contribute to the crash.

Was he impaired in any way at the wheel that evening?

No, said Chavez.

Did he get enough sleep the night before?

Eight or nine hours, he replied.

What does he normally do when he hears a police siren?

“I make sure that I slow down or pull to the side to allow them passage,” he testified. “But I didn’t see any lights or police.”

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