GREENSBORO — Jurors in the involuntary manslaughter trial of TikTok star Jessica Middlebrook, known as “towtruckjess” on social media, continued to show signs of struggling with a verdict on Wednesday in a deadly 2019 crash involving an elderly couple on a motorcycle.
The jury wrote three messages over the course of four hours to Guilford County Superior Court Judge Stuart Albright, who at the end of the day asked them to continue deliberations today.
The strange case involves Middlebrook, a tow truck driver, leaving her vehicle parked in the road outside of her home in rural Guilford County about 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning in April. That’s when it was hit by a motorcycle carrying 70-year-old Patricia Willard.
Willard’s husband, Jerry, was driving the trike-style motorcycle, with two wheels in the back, when it collided with the vehicle, according to the State Highway Patrol. Jerry Willard tried to avoid a collision but ended up hitting the back left corner of the tow truck’s bed, which prosecutor Scott Drorbaugh likened to a “sword.”
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Patricia Willard died of gruesome injuries, and the crash left her husband in critical condition.
“But for Ms. Middlebrook’s tow truck in the middle of the road, Ms. Willard would not have died,” Drorbaugh said during Wednesday’s closing arguments for the two-day trial.
Drorbaugh, an assistant district attorney, told jurors there had been no evidence that the vehicle had simply broken down on the two-lane road. Earlier reports said it had possibly been there overnight.
Drorbaugh said Middlebrook didn’t intend to kill anyone, but the accident was foreseeable.
“Feeling bad for her is not a reasonable doubt,” Drorbaugh said.
Middlebrook, a 37-year-old who had amassed 2.9 million followers with inspiring and fun clips on a since-deleted TikTok profile, did not testify during the trial. A newer profile has more than 50,000 followers.
One of her attorneys, Jan Pritchett, argued in hisclosing that jurors should consider what the prosecution witnesses had to say, notably Jerry Willard. Willard could have been under the influence of prescription medicine he acknowledged taking, the attorney told the jury.
Pritchett also scoffed at the idea that the sun might have been in Willard’s eye before he came up on the “big yellow tow truck.”
The arriving investigating officer said it had not been a problem for him, Pritchett continued.
Investigators estimated Jerry Willard had been traveling 45 mph — 15 mph over the posted speed limit.
“The problem wasn’t the truck. The problem was Mr. Willard,” Pritchett told the jury.
Pritchett said that Middlebrook had left the truck in front of her residence, along a dead-end road with a church and only one other neighbor nearby, as she rushed home to tend to a sick child.
As he spoke, the dark-haired and lithe Middlebrook at times sat with her face buried in her hands.
The defense counsel noted that Jerry Willard was not in the courtroom.
“It’s probably hard for him to come and accept responsibility for something that’s his fault,” said Pritchett before asking the jury to consider it all.
After the jury’s dismissal, Albright took the unusual step of swearing in two of the courtroom bailiffs in a dramatic end to the day.
The bailiffs had earlier accompanied Middlebrook to the bathroom as the jury deliberated. One of the bailiffs testified that Middlebrook asked him what he would do if she “ran.” The bailiff said that he later heard another woman, who he identified as Middlebrook’s mother, encourage her daughter to flee.
Teresa Middlebrook vehemently denied the allegation as the bailiff was giving testimony.
“I would never tell my daughter to run,” Teresa Middlebrook told the judge. “Ever.”
Albright would go on to warn Jessica Middlebrook, who attempted to speak but was cut off by him, that she could face serious charges and forfeit her bond. He warned her mother that she could be charged as an accomplice if she was with her daughter and she did not return to court.
Before the trial, Middlebrook had been released on bond but had been late to court twice and was not being allowed to leave the courtroom on her own.