Zachary Alexander Norris was charged with the August 6, 2017, vehicle-related murder that killed 26-year-old Jessica Amy Oberlin, but was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to five misdemeanors in a deal negotiated by defense attorney Stacey Jackson .
He was charged with a misdemeanor charge of motor vehicle homicide, reckless driving, excessive speed, driving too fast on road conditions and not wearing a seat belt. Sentenced to probation, Judge Arthur Smith IIII ordered Norris to perform 100 hours of community service and pay nearly $6,000 to the State Victims Compensation Fund that helped cover Oberlin’s funeral expenses.
Smith judged Norris as the number one offender, which means his record will be cleared if he successfully completes the test. Jackson said his client had no criminal record prior to the incident.
Columbus police said officers were called to Double Churches Road and Nature Trail about 7:50 a.m. that rainy night. They said Oberlin, who was driving a 2007 Toyota Prius, had just turned double chapels from a stop sign on the Nature Trail.
Officers said the 2007 GMC Sierra 2500 Norris was traveling west in the left lane of Double Church Road, having just turned that side after turning into the right lane to overtake another vehicle. Investigators said that the left front of the GMC collided with the left side of the Oberlin Prius, causing severe damage and serious injury.
Authorities said Oberlin, who was rushed to hospital, was pronounced dead at 8:15 p.m.
Police initially said Oberlin was at fault, having failed to give up the right of way when turning onto the double churches road. But after reviewing the data-collecting device on the truck, and questioning the driver who reported Norris veered into the right lane to overtake the driver’s car, investigators alleged that Norris committed several traffic violations.
They claimed Norris, 26 at the time, was traveling 93 mph in a 45 mph zone.
But Jackson told the court on Friday that that assessment of Norris’ speed “cannot be unequivocally proven,” as evidence from the truck’s data recorder did not prove it. The most accurate estimate, he said, was 53 mph.
Jackson also said crews changed the intersection later, after Oberlin’s death, and moved the Nature Trail stop sign about 34 feet from Double Churches Trail so drivers could better face the traffic.
He also noted that Norris’ truck was much larger and heavier than an Oberlin Prius, so serious collision damage was inevitable. “It’s like watermelons and oranges bumping into each other,” he said, adding later, “There are a lot of unfortunate circumstances in this case.”
Before judging Norris, Smith heard testimony from Oberlin’s parents and husband, who tried to explain the depth of their loss.
The mother, Heidi Savage, said that her firstborn was also one of her closest blood relatives, as she herself had been adopted. “It was a gift I had longed for all my life, before she was born,” she said.
The loss was hard to bear for everyone who knew Jessica, she said, “It changed my life and my family’s life forever.”
The father, Richard Noble, remembers holding his newborn daughter in his arms as he walked from the delivery room to the hospital nursery. “I was the first person ever to hold Jessica,” he said. “That was a special bond for me.”
Turning to Norris, Noble said, “You died because of your excessive speed and reckless respect for social mores…you killed a very precious person.”
He remembers how he and his daughter loved to joke around together. “It was a beautiful laugh,” he said. He added that the first months of his 2017 calendar were marked by notes written for him by his daughter. Someone said, “I’m thinking of you, Dad.”
She loved celebrating the holidays, he pointed out, to Norris, “I wouldn’t take all those holidays with my daughter, and I wouldn’t have to spend them with her, because of your actions,” he told Norris.
Ryan Oberlin said he served in the military here, but Columbus feels like a stranger to him now.
“I should feel like I am coming home,” he said, “but there is a shadow that surrounds my life now,” adding, “There is an unbearable and indescribable sadness.”