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Appeal Rejected In Case Of Meth-Impaired Driver

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Flickr Creative Commons
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

An appeals court Wednesday upheld the conviction of a man who was accused of driving under the influence of methamphetamine in 2014 when he slammed into another car and killed a 13-year-old child in Northwest Florida. 

Melvin Douglas Hawthorne, now 38, was convicted of driving under the influence causing death, driving under the influence causing serious personal injury and driving under the influence causing property damage, according to the ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal.

Hawthorne’s appeal focused, in part, on the admission of expert testimony by Bruce Goldberger, director of toxicology and chief of forensic medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine.

Goldberger testified about the effects of methamphetamine on human physiology and that, based on his tests and studies, the details of the case were consistent with a driver impaired by methamphetamine.

The challenge to Goldberger’s testimony involved whether it met a standard, known in the legal world as the “Daubert” standard, for being admitted in the case.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court upheld a ruling by a Santa Rosa County circuit judge to allow the testimony.

The appeals court said the circuit judge did not act improperly in allowing Goldberger to answer hypothetical questions asked by a prosecutor.

“Dr. Goldberger testified that his methodology of determining whether a set of facts was consistent with methamphetamine impairment was commonly accepted in his field and testified that this method was based on published studies by him and other professionals in his field, and at trial he applied those methods to the facts of this case,” said the six-page ruling, written by appeals-court Chief Judge Brad Thomas and joined by judges Harvey Jay and M. Kemmerly Thomas. “Therefore, we conclude that his expert testimony was admissible under Daubert, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting his testimony.”

The opinion said Hawthorne, who had been released from a county jail about 12 hours earlier, was driving an estimated 79 mph when he crashed into the car.

A 2016 Pensacola News Journal story identified the teen who died as Shawn McLaughlin, a passenger in the car.

Hawthorne was sentenced to 30 years in prison on the DUI manslaughter charge and 10 years on the DUI charge related to causing a serious injury, according to the Florida Department of Corrections website. He is an inmate at Calhoun Correctional Institution.