Two drivers testified Wednesday that a Baton Rouge man, who a prosecutor said had just left a Perkins Road bar after two hours of drinking, sped past them on Perkins moments before his car struck two bicyclists, killing one and severely injuring the other the night of Jan. 21, 2012.
Philip Dupre said he was traveling east on Perkins in the left lane when he noticed Joseph Branch approaching from behind at “an excessive speed.” Dupre said he moved into the right lane, and Branch passed him before also moving into the right lane.
“I saw an individual go in the air and land on the trunk of (Branch’s) car,” Dupre said.
That individual was avid cyclist Nathan Crowson, 30, who died at the scene. Crowson’s friend and fellow cyclist, Danny Morris, was seriously injured in the crash and was in state District Judge Mike Erwin’s courtroom for opening statements and testimony at Branch’s trial.
Branch, 30, is charged with vehicular homicide and first-degree vehicular negligent injuring.
The trial will resume Thursday and is expected to conclude Friday.
Dupre, who said he called 911 after checking Crowson for a pulse, testified he then had a brief but disturbing conversation with Branch.
“He stepped to the back of the vehicle and nonchalantly asked, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Dupre recalled. “I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ ”
Dupre said he later saw Branch crying hysterically.
Byron Patureau, a registered nurse, also testified that he was eastbound on Perkins that night and observed Branch approaching “very quickly” from behind.
“That car sped very quickly past me. Very, very quickly,” Patureau said. “I felt like it was erratic, dangerous driving.”
Patureau testified that, moments after Branch veered into the right lane, he heard the impact and saw “debris” fly into the air. Patureau said he rushed to help Morris, who was face down on the ground.
“His lower half of body was twisted. His breathing was very, very shallow,” he said.
Baton Rouge police Lt. Corey Reech, commanding officer of the DWI Task Force, testified Branch had a blood-alcohol level of 0.307 percent at the time of the crash. In Louisiana, a driver 21 and older with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher is considered to be driving drunk.
Police Cpl. Mickey Duncan, a DWI Task Force member, said Branch had glassy eyes, slurred speech, a strong odor of alcohol and swayed balance. Branch could not complete a field sobriety test, he added.
Prosecutor Julie Cullen told the six-person jury and one alternate juror that Branch left The Bulldog bar on Perkins just eight minutes before the crash. She said he had been drinking there for two hours.
“This is not one cocktail with a friend. This is a lot of drinking over a short period of time,” she argued, alleging that Branch visited more than one bar that day.
Cullen said Crowson and Morris were riding side by side in the right lane on Perkins near Quail Run Drive when Branch hit them.
“It hit him so hard his shoes flew off,” she said of Crowson.
Cullen and Branch’s attorney, DeVan Pardue, both told the jury that Crowson and Morris had marijuana in their systems at the time of the crash. Pardue also said a lab detected LSD on candy found in Crowson’s pants pocket.
Pardue added that Crowson and Morris were wearing dark clothes the night of the accident and were moving slower than normal traffic on a four-lane roadway.
“Don’t be closed-minded,” he said to the jury. “The fault is not going to be on the defendant. Some things just happen.”
Branch has a previous DWI charge and conviction, which Cullen said is part of “the big picture.” He was booked for his first DWI on Aug. 3, 2006. His blood-alcohol content then was 0.241 percent, Baton Rouge City Court records indicate.
Branch was originally given a 60-day suspended jail term for his first DWI, but that term was reinstated three days after the crash that killed Crowson and injured Morris, the records show. He then was allowed to post bond under the condition that he go directly from jail to an inpatient treatment facility. He completed that treatment.