A West Virginia jury acquitted a Buffalo truck driver charged in the death of eight people during a fiery crash last summer on Interstate 79.
After hearing the jury clear him of criminally negligent homicide charges, all Manuel Cruzado Jr., 26, wanted to do was go home.
"I just want to go home," Cruzado said as he left the courtroom. "We're leaving right now."
The six-member Braxton County Magistrate Court jury deliberated 2 1/4 hours before clearing Cruzado of the misdemeanor counts. If convicted, Cruzado could have been sentenced to a maximum of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine on each count.
Defense attorney Gary Collias patted a relieved Cruzado on the back as the verdict was read. Cruzado's father, Manuel Cruzado Sr., had been in the courtroom throughout the two-day trial.
"I thought it was going to take longer," said Cruzado's mother, Margarita. "It was such a big tragedy."
Mrs. Cruzado, of Lackawanna, learned of the acquittal when her son and husband telephoned from West Virginia Thursday night. She said they started driving home immediately after the trial.
"He sounded so happy," Mrs. Cruzado said of her son. "I knew he was innocent. I prayed so much to God."
"I was praying since I left Buffalo because I know my son didn't want to kill anyone. It was an accident," the elder Cruzado said.
"I can't say I was surprised. The state has a pretty heavy burden of proof in these cases," prosecutor Bill Martin said.
Cruzado's loaded car-carrier smashed into a car at an I-79 construction site July 26, causing the car to rear-end a car in front of it. Both cars burst into flames and burned, along with Cruzado's truck and his cargo.
Killed in one car was a family of five from Patchogue, N.Y.: Joseph M. Curran, 35; his wife, Lisa,
34, and their children, Joseph Jr., 13, Angela, 11, and 8-year-old Kristin.
In the other car were Stephen W. McKinney, 37, James F. Sullivan III, 35, and Sullivan's 9-year-old son, James F. Clayton, all of Fairmont. They also died.
Cruzado suffered only minor burns.
Cruzado still faces more than $30 million in civil lawsuits filed against him by the Currans' family and by Sullivan's widow.
Earlier Thursday, Cruzado testified that his brakes failed and said he couldn't avoid smashing into the two cars.
He said he was hauling eight cars for Double B Auto Transport of West Seneca when he spotted traffic congested on a bridge near Sutton as he rounded a curve at the bottom of a 2-mile-long hill.
"I couldn't tell from the distance if the cars were slowed down or stopped, but I could see their tail lights," Cruzado said.
He said he tried to down shift from seventh gear to sixth, then tried to slam on his brakes.
"I panicked because I knew I had to get the vehicle stopped," Cruzado said. He said he virtually stood on his brake pedal but still couldn't stop his rig.
"I felt just a slight nudge of brake," he said.
Cruzado, speaking softly and at times mumbling, said he was shocked by the collision and ensuing fire and thought just one car was involved until sometime after the accident.
Mrs. Cruzado said her son, who returned to his parents' Lackawanna home after his employer posted bail, was worried about the trial.
"He was nervous," she said, adding, "He hardly talks to us about the accident."
She said her son wanted to get the trial over.
"Now he can get on with his life," Mrs. Cruzado said.
Robert Runner, a state Public Service Commission motor vehicles examiner, told jurors he tested the rig's air brakes immediately after the accident and later examined the brake shoes and drums at the request of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Runner said the truck should have had 85 percent of its braking power when the wreck occurred.
But Jerry Jarvis, a Sutton truck mechanic, said he also inspected the brakes at the request of an insurance company and found them badly worn and essentially useless.
Jarvis said, "There is no doubt in my mind that the brakes were defective."
Other defense witnesses questioned whether the state Division of Highways had provided adequate warning signs about the construction site on the Elk River Bridge.
Sutton beautician Janet Gibson said she came forward Wednesday after seeing state highway crews recreating the accident scene for the jury.
Ms. Gibson said highway crews erected some warning signs after the accident but told the jury they had been put up before the wreck.
Another defense witness, Alex McFadden of Myrtle Beach, S.C., testified he passed Cruzado's truck just before the accident and smelled what appeared to be burning brakes.
But Cruzado testified he didn't ride his brakes as he came down the mountain, which could have caused excessive heat and brake failure. Cruzado also said he had experienced no previous brake problems with the rig, which he had driven from New York to Florida and was on a return trip home.