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Motorist using Facetime pleads guilty in felony manslaughter case

This story was updated at 4 p.m. Thursday.A Tarrant County man accused of video-chatting when his vehicle crashed into another on Dec. 24, 2014, killing one and injuring three others in Denton, has pleaded guilty to a felony manslaughter charge in the case.

Garrett Wilhelm

Garrett Wilhelm was 20 years old at the time of the wreck. The long-standing criminal case came to an end late Wednesday, less than two weeks before it was expected to go before a Denton County jury.

Wilhelm’s attorney, Ricky Perritt, called the plea deal a fair outcome, given the consequences Wilhelm otherwise faced for his role in the death of 5-year-old Moriah Modisette.

Mark Finley / Courtesy Photo 

Moriah Modisette

“He’s taken responsibility for it,” Perritt said.

The afternoon of the wreck, state troopers had pulled over a motorist near mile marker 81 just south of Denton. Moriah’s father, James Modisette, had brought the family’s Toyota Camry to a stop in the left lane. Bethany, Moriah’s mother, sat in the front passenger seat. In the back seat sat Moriah, on the driver’s side, and Isabella, her older sister.

Wilhelm was heading south from Gainesville toward his family’s home in Keller and apparently didn’t notice that traffic had stopped on the highway ahead. His Toyota 4Runner went up and over the driver’s side of the Modisette family car at 65 mph, according to a crash investigator.

The 4Runner moved with such force it pushed the Camry forward and around until it faced the wrong direction on the freeway, obliterating the car. The 4Runner ended up facing the wrong way, too, off the shoulder and in the grassy ditch farther south than the Camry.

And, according to court documents, Wilhelm’s video-chat app, called FaceTime, was still running on his iPhone.

Eight months later, a Denton County grand jury indicted him for manslaughter in the case, a second-degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in state prison and up to a $10,000 fine. Trial dates were delayed for years as prosecutors were unable to obtain assistance accessing the iPhone.

Two years after the crash, the family filed a product liability lawsuit against Apple, claiming the company was negligent in the case. Court documents showed Apple could disable FaceTime when a phone was in motion but opted not to do so. The case was ultimately dismissed; Apple officials would not say whether they were asked to cooperate in the Denton case.

The Denton County District Attorney’s office received a new indictment in the case last year, giving prosecutors more options to prove Wilhelm was using FaceTime at the time of the wreck.

First Assistant District Attorney Jamie Beck said the office would not comment on the plea deal before sentencing.

According to court documents, Wilhelm agreed to plead guilty to the original felony charge but would receive deferred adjudication after five years. In other words, the felony charge will be dismissed if he fulfills the terms of the agreement, which includes serving 110 days in the Denton County Jail, paying court costs and a yet-to-be-determined amount of restitution and stay out of trouble for the next five years.

He does not have a prior criminal history.

The plea deal is expected to be finalized during a sentencing hearing later this month.

Bethany Modisette, Moriah’s mother, was notified of the deal, but said she was still processing it all. The family planned on making comments at the hearing, she said.

“We will read to him what we have to say,” Modisette said.

The sentencing hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 24 in the 367th District Court, Judge Margaret Barnes presiding.

Jeff Woo/DRC  

Tioga resident Joe Vaughn purchases and packs a rose arrangement for his girlfriend for Valentine’s Day Thursday at the Kroger Denton Crossing store.

Coronavirus case confirmed in Texas, the 15th in the U.S.

Another case of the new coronavirus has been confirmed in a U.S. evacuee from China, this one in a person who is under quarantine in Texas.

Health officials announced the 15th confirmed U.S. case Thursday, which is the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Texas. The infection was confirmed through a lab test Wednesday night.

The patient, who had been flown to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, is in isolation at a hospital and was reported to be in stable condition. The patient had returned to the U.S. on a state department-chartered flight Feb. 7, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

“There may be additional cases we identify. I do want to prepare you for that,” said Dr. Jennifer McQuiston, deputy director of the CDC’s division of high consequence pathogens and pathology.

The risk for people in San Antonio and the state is still low because the person has been in quarantine, the Department of State Health Services said.

Two earlier U.S. cases were found among evacuees who were flown last week from the Chinese city of Wuhan to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in Southern California. The latest of those cases was reported Wednesday night.

Hundreds of people, including U.S. State Department employees and their families, have arrived at military bases in Texas, California and Nebraska aboard chartered flights from Wuhan, a city of 11 million that is at the center of the outbreak.

The new virus, which is known as COVID-19 and was first reported late last year, can cause fever, coughing, wheezing and pneumonia. Health officials think it spreads mainly from droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how the flu spreads. Similar to Middle East respiratory syndrome and severe acute respiratory syndrome, both known strains of coronavirus, health officials believe this strain of the virus originated in animals and then infected people.

There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Dallas County, and local health authorities have stressed that the risk of the virus in the U.S. is still low.

Several possible cases have been investigated in the state, including in a student at Baylor University and another at Texas A&M University. A man in Dallas County was tested for the virus late last month, and a Beaumont man was tested for the virus last week. None of those patients had the disease, and the San Antonio patient has been the only confirmed test in the state, according to the state health department.

As of Wednesday, 66 people in the United States were being tested for the virus in 41 states, according to the CDC.

In an interview Wednesday morning with The Dallas Morning News, a Chinese diplomat urged people not to overreact to the new virus, saying China is taking “extraordinary measures” to contain the outbreak.

Cai Wei, the Chinese consul general in Houston, said it’s unclear whether the worst of the virus is over, but he said the rate of confirmed cases was slowing.

“Do not be overpanicked. ... This is the most important thing,” he said Wednesday. “The virus might be, in itself, fearful. But what is more fearful is the panic.”

More than 14,000 new coronavirus cases were reported Wednesday evening in China’s Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, bringing the total to more than 60,000.

Senate moves to limit Trump on military force against Iran

WASHINGTON — The Senate approved a bipartisan measure Thursday aimed at limiting President Donald Trump’s authority to launch military operations against Iran, with eight Republicans joining Democrats in a post-impeachment bid to constrain the White House. Both Texas senators voted against the measure.

The rebuke was the Senate’s first major vote since acquitting Trump on impeachment charges last week. Trump is expected to veto the resolution if it reaches his desk, warning that if his “hands were tied, Iran would have a field day.’”

The measure, authored by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., says Trump must win approval from Congress before engaging in further military action against Iran. Kaine and other supporters said the resolution, which passed 55-45, was not about Trump or even the presidency, but instead was an important reassertion of congressional power to declare war.

While Trump and other presidents “must always have the ability to defend the United States from imminent attack, the executive power to initiate war stops there,’’ Kaine said. “An offensive war requires a congressional debate and vote.’’

The Senate vote continues a pattern in which Republican senators have shown a willingness to challenge Trump on foreign policy, a sharp departure from their strong support during impeachment and on domestic matters. Congress moved to impose restrictions on U.S. involvement with the Saudi-led war in Yemen last year after U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in a gruesome murder at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Turkey.

The bipartisan vote was a rare exertion of authority from Congress, the first since passage of the Act of 1973. And Trump promptly vetoed it.

The Democratic-controlled House passed a separate, nonbinding resolution on Iran last month. The House could take up the Senate resolution later this month, House leaders said. Two-thirds votes in the House and GOP-run Senate would be needed to override an expected Trump veto of the resolution.

Answering a claim by some of Trump’s supporters and Trump himself that the measure would send a signal of weakness to Iran and other potential adversaries, Kaine said the opposite was true.

“When we stand up for the rule of law ... and say ‘This decision is fundamental, and we have rules that we are going to follow so we can make a good decision,’ that’s a message of strength,’’ Kaine said. “If we’re to order our young men and women ... to risk their lives in war, it should be on the basis of careful deliberation by the people’s elected legislature and not on the say-so of any one person.’’

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, agreed. Lee supports Trump’s foreign policy, including toward Iran, but said Congress cannot escape its constitutional responsibility to act on matters of war and peace.

As the Senate debate made clear, “there is abundant support for the United States taking tough positions with regard to Iran,’’ Lee said. ”And as part of that we want to make sure that any military action that needs to be authorized is in fact properly authorized by Congress. That doesn’t show weakness. That shows strength.’’’

Trump disputed that, arguing on Twitter that a vote against Kaine’s proposal was important to national security and pointed to the Jan. 3 drone strike that killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani.

“We are doing very well with Iran and this is not the time to show weakness. Americans overwhelmingly support our attack on terrorist Soleimani,’’ Trump said. “If my hands were tied, Iran would have a field day. Sends a very bad signal. The Democrats are only doing this as an attempt to embarrass the Republican Party. Don’t let it happen!’’

Tehran responded to the U.S. attack on Soleimani by launching missiles at two military bases in Iraq that house American troops. The attack caused traumatic brain injuries in at least 64 U.S. soldiers, the Pentagon said..

Democrats and Republicans alike criticized a briefing by the Trump administration shortly after the drone strike, saying U.S. officials offered vague information about a possible attack being planned by Iran but no substantial details.

Kaine has long pushed for action reasserting congressional power to declare war. At Republicans’ request, he removed initial language that targeted Trump in favor of a generalized statement declaring that Congress has the sole power to declare war. The resolution also directs Trump to terminate use of military force against Iran or any part of its government without approval from Congress.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a co-sponsor, called the resolution “much needed and long overdue.’’ In recent decades, “Congress has too often abdicated its constitutional responsibility on authorizing the sustained use of military force,’’ she said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and many other Republicans opposed the resolution, saying it would send the wrong message to U.S. allies. “Just as we have successfully sent Iran this strong signal of our strength and resolve (by killing that country’s top general), a blunt and clumsy resolution would tie our own hands,” McConnell said.

The three senators seeking the Democratic nomination for president — Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — all returned to the Capitol from campaigning and backed the resolution.

Besides Collins and Lee, Republicans joining Democrats were Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Todd Young of Indiana.

Smatresk reflects on student protests, how to improve diversity and inclusion at UNT

DALLAS — When students protested in November demanding action to better support students of color, University of North Texas President Neal Smatresk said he learned the school could do better.

The protests in November at the last Board of Regents meeting occurred days after a white UNT System employee used a racial slur during a free speech event on campus. It also came with clear demands from students, with more than 150 sitting in on the meeting.

“The event that occurred that prompted the demonstration was just a trigger, it wasn’t the reason they were there,” Smatresk said. “The reason was they had long-standing feelings of being marginalized at times, not being respected, not feeling like they had equal access, and the more I understood we had to make changes.”

During Thursday’s regular Board of Regents meeting at UNT Dallas, Smatresk, Chancellor Lesa Roe and the other school presidents (UNT Dallas, UNT Health Science Center) all addressed what diversity and inclusion efforts were underway at the system and the campuses.

Smatresk’s presentation was just one slide highlighting new efforts while speaking about how the event and protests impacted his thinking about campus culture.

He also highlighted ongoing efforts: Faculty aren’t eligible for merit raises if they haven’t completed diversity training and all vice presidents are creating “contextually relevant” trainings for their teams.

Smatresk also said he is hoping for better conversations and more deep training at student orientation. He added that requests for diversity and implicit bias training from deans and other campus leaders have surged.

Roe also highlighted an event happening at UNT in Denton next week that System leadership will attend, an all-day training session led by Joanne Woodard, vice president for institutional equity and diversity.

“You’ll see that what we’re working on is different cultures at our university and preserving those and making sure we move forward in a really good way,” Roe said.

For Smatresk, the student response was a realization that the campus wasn’t as inclusive as he thought it was, and prompted him to learn about diverse student experiences to implement institutional changes.

“The big message is — that changed us,” he said. “And change is important. Growing is to be changed and that matters. I think for all of us, that is now more true than it ever has been before.”

In other action

Both Roe and Smatresk also got contract extensions after a lengthy executive session to evaluate both administrators. The contract extensions and details of any pay increases or amendments will be negotiated and executed by Laura Wright, chair of the Board of Regents.

During the meeting, Smatresk also announced that TAMS, the elite high school on campus, was going to be changing into STEAM, adding music and arts students starting with the fall 2020 class.