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Verdict stirs emotion

Judge rules not guilty for vehicular manslaughter in fatal crash

Photo by Gregory Bacon From left, Nicholas Mineweaser, attorney Michael Dwan and District Attorney Jason Schmidt face the front of the court.

Supreme Courtroom Friday to hear Judge Paul Wojtaszek issue his ruling for the trial of Nicholas Mineweaser.

“The court’s verdict is as follows: under count one, for the charges of vehicular manslaughter in the second degree, the court’s verdict is not guilty. Under count two, which charges driving while ability impaired by drugs, the court’s verdict is guilty,” he said.

Family members cried in disbelief. It was not what they hoped for or expected.

On Feb. 24, 2020, Mineweaser, who lived in Lakewood at the time, rear ended a vehicle on Route 60 in the town of Pomfret, driven by Shanna Wilcox of Cassadaga, which caused that vehicle to be struck by a tractor trailer. Her 7-year-old daughter, Emmaline, perished in the accident. The prosecution argued that Mineweaser was under the influence of marijuana while he was operating his vehicle.

Mineweaser was represented by Buffalo attorney Michael Dwan. During the trial, Dwan argued that Route 60 is inherently dangerous and that his client was unable to avoid the accident.

Among the family members present in court Friday were Shanna Wilcox and her parents. They asked Aaron Wilcox, who was Emmaline’s cousin and regularly attended the trial, to speak on behalf of the family.

“I was certainly surprised,” he said. “I believe the accident reconstructionist blatantly said that he was the reason for the accident, which in my opinion, would have, in turn, made the manslaughter charge guilty.”

Chautauqua County District Attorney Jason Schmidt and Assistant District Attorney Emily Woodard prosecuted the case. The two met privately with the family following the verdict.

“I’m profoundly disappointed by the verdict,” Schmidt said afterward. “I believe we established each and every element of the felony charge beyond a reasonable doubt and that we should have obtained a conviction on that charge, not just the driving while ability impaired by drugs charge.”

Schmidt noted the judge didn’t provide any “Findings of Fact” so he declined to speculate on how Wojtaszek arrived at his verdict. “Our hearts go out to the Wilcox family and all those who grieve for Emmaline’s loss. We put on our best case and admitted into evidence everything developed during the course of the investigation. This is all we can do as prosecutors,” he said.

Even though Mineweaser was found guilty of driving while ability impaired by drugs, his attorney Dwan said he was happy with the ruling. “I think the judge got it right,” he said.

The trial, which actually only had seven days in court, began in early November but went through multiple delays before the decision was handed down. There were days a courtroom was unavailable. Other times, the judge and/or the prosecution had to delay due to other court trials. At one point, Schmidt requested a continuance so he could deal with evidence brought in by the defense that said Mineweaser had been involved in an automobile accident in 2016 that had allegedly affected his ability to take the physical sobriety tests.

The trial wrapped up on Dec. 9. Wojtaszek said he wanted enough time to review the transcripts before issuing his decision. Due to Christmas and New Year’s holidays, the judge planned on issuing his ruling Jan. 5, however weather closed the courts that day and his ruling was delayed until Friday.

During the trial, Schmidt brought in 12 people to testify — two area state troopers, one Fredonia Police Officer who was a drug recognition expert, one investigator, one toxicology expert, two Fredonia firefighters, Mineweaser’s former girlfriend, the tow truck driver, the tractor trailer driver, one witness, and Wilcox herself.

The defense, meanwhile, only had one person testify. That was Mineweaser’s mother, Mindy Gruver.

This was the first trial in Chautauqua County to be held in person since the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020. According to Schmidt the defendant wanted a bench trial instead of a jury trial, which allowed Wojtaszek to make the ruling.

After issuing his ruling, Wojtaszek scheduled the sentencing date for April 8, sharing that Mineweaser faces up to 364 days in jail. He warned Mineweaser not to break the law or he could face further punishment.

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