THE CIRCUIT COURT OF SPOTSYLVANIA COUNTY Joseph J. Ellis,
B. Dillon for appellant.
Virginia B. Theisen, Senior Assistant Attorney General (Mark
R. Herring, Attorney General; Kathleen B. Martin, [*] Senior Assistant
Attorney General, on brief), for appellee.
Present: Judges Beales, Alston and Senior Judge Haley Argued
at Richmond, Virginia
D. ALSTON, JR. JUDGE.
James Synan, II appeals the decision of the trial court
finding appellant guilty of malicious wounding, driving under
the influence ("DUI"), and assault of two
individuals, Teresa Hiddleston and Dawn Napper. Appellant argues
that the trial court erred in admitting certain statements
that were self-serving hearsay lacking any reliability.
Appellant also argues that the trial court erred in finding
the evidence sufficient to convict appellant of malicious
wounding, assault and battery, and DUI. We disagree with
appellant. As such, we affirm the decision of the trial
December 1, 2012, appellant and his wife, Ruth Synan, were
involved in an accident resulting in their van crashing into
an embankment after crossing through oncoming traffic. At
appellant's February 3, 2015 bench trial,  several witnesses
testified as to the events surrounding the accident.
Hiddleston testified that on December 1, 2012, the day of the
accident, she was transporting a high school band, from a
parade at the Spotsylvania Courthouse back to Massaponax High
School, in a school bus. While driving, Hiddleston saw a van
turning in front of the bus and had to swerve over the yellow
line to avoid hitting the van. She stated that the van turned
at a very sharp and abrupt ninety-degree angle. Hiddleston
testified that she came "real close" to hitting the
van, estimating that it was "[p]robably not even a half
a car length" away. At the time, Hiddleston was
driving approximately forty-five miles per hour but she did
not speculate as to how fast appellant's van was going,
although she did indicate that "[it] was moving very
fast" and it did not slow down. Hiddleston testified
that when she swerved over the yellow line, the children on
the bus were "out of their seat[s], " but noted
that everyone was okay. After the van passed in front of her
bus, Hiddleston saw it "hit the embankment and then it
kind of bounced back and rolled over to its side." At
that point, Hiddleston pulled the bus over. She remained on
the bus while chaperones and some of the students went to
help. Hiddleston testified that she did not see the occupants
of the van nor did she know who was driving at the time of
Napper, a chaperone for the marching band, testified that she
was riding in Hiddleston's bus at the time of the
incident. Napper saw the van in the other lane heading toward
the bus and testified that it "started swerving and all
of a sudden [it] just cut right in front of [the] bus."
She too described the turn as very sharp and abrupt. Napper
further testified that the van came "within inches"
of the bus and would have hit the bus absent Hiddleston's
maneuvers to avoid it. Napper estimated that the bus was
going about forty-five miles per hour.
watching the van crash, Napper called 911, exited the bus,
and walked over to the man who was inside the van. Napper
testified that appellant directed his attention to the other
person in the van and kept saying: "I'm sorry, baby.
I didn't mean to hurt you. I didn't mean to hurt
you." Napper also heard appellant say he would have to
"get back in there. There's money I've got to
get out of there. I've got to get back in there."
Napper described appellant as "very panicky" and
noted that appellant smelled of alcohol and was
unintelligible at times. Napper did not see any alcohol in or
near the van, but she indicated that the smell was
"overwhelming" and it seemed to be coming from
appellant and not the van itself.
Jackson, who was riding in another bus that was taking band
members back from the parade, also saw the van coming down
the other lane. Jackson did not know how fast the van was
traveling but noticed it "because of its sporadic nature
on the road. It was weaving back and forth." Jackson
characterized the van's turn as a "hard left"
and noticed that the other bus moved to the left. Jackson
stated that the van "came up on the buses' right
side and eventually made another hard left turn over the side
of the road and then up the embankment." He said that
the van hit the embankment with "a pretty good rate of
speed. You could tell that whoever was driving lost
testified that he saw appellant exit from the top of the van,
jump off, and collapse, stating that he was in pain. Jackson
described appellant's demeanor as angry and further
elaborated that appellant was saying things like: "he
was getting the 'F' out of the way, " "[h]e
was leaving the scene, " and asking others "to
leave him alone." Jackson testified that he went over to
the van to try to help the female who was still inside
calling for help. Inside the van he saw "an extremely
large quantity of beer cans, " both opened and unopened.
Jackson described the female occupant of the vehicle as
"crying, hysterical, [and] shaken."
assisting the female occupant of the van, Jackson heard
appellant saying, "baby, I didn't mean this. I
didn't want to hurt you. I wasn't trying to hurt us.
Please forgive me, " and other words indicating that
appellant was generally apologetic for the accident. Jackson
continued trying to calm the female occupant down but
indicated that "[s]he didn't calm down for a
while." Jackson stated that she was "rambling,
" telling him things voluntarily and that it got to the
point "where she wanted [him] to know that [appellant]
jerked the steering wheel. She wanted [him] to know that
[appellant] tried to kill them both by hitting the van, that
he was yelling at her, [and] that they were fighting."
Jackson estimated that it was no more than two minutes from
the time of the accident to the time when he was at the
vehicle with the female inside the van.
conclusion of Jackson's testimony, appellant objected to
the statements made by Ruth Synan at the scene, arguing that
they were self-serving hearsay. The Commonwealth argued that
the statements fell within the excited utterance exception to
the hearsay rule and that the statements were not elicited in
response to a line of questioning but rather came as a
response to one question: "What happened?" Further,
the Commonwealth argued that Jackson did not offer any
suggestions as to what occurred. The trial court overruled
Hartwig, a chaperone on Jackson's bus, testified that
Jackson brought her attention to the van driving erratically,
and she turned and saw the van go up the embankment and roll
back down. After the accident, Hartwig sat with appellant on
the embankment, trying to assist him while they waited for
rescue personnel to arrive. Hartwig testified that appellant
was very agitated, insisting on wanting to talk to the female
in the vehicle. Hartwig noted that appellant was concerned
about money in the van, insistent that Hartwig call his
daughter, and adamant about having to leave before the
stated that when she briefly spoke to the female in the van
to get appellant's daughter's phone number, the
female in the van was in shock and had a "very jittery
voice, [and was] very . . . upset." Hartwig estimated
that the rescue squad arrived in less than ten minutes and
that the conversations with appellant and the female in the
van all occurred within that timeframe. The female in the van
kept saying "I can't believe he did this. I
don't know why he did this, you know, he did this."
Hartwig testified that appellant repeatedly apologized,
saying: "I'm sorry, Susie. I didn't mean to do
to resting its case, the Commonwealth mentioned the following
stipulations: (1) Ruth Synan was appellant's wife and (2)
at the time of the accident, appellant's BAC was above
.08. At the conclusion of the Commonwealth's case,
appellant moved to strike the evidence. Appellant argued that
there was no evidence that either Napper or Hiddleston felt
threatened by appellant and that no one saw who was in
control of the vehicle when it swerved into oncoming traffic.
Appellant also argued that there was no evidence showing that
he acted with malice and the intent to maim, disfigure or
kill. Appellant maintained that he was in the vehicle at the
time of the accident, so he would have wanted to hurt himself
if he grabbed the wheel. Further, appellant argued that there
was no space in the car for him to gain control over the
vehicle by jerking ...