JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) – A Marine was found not guilty Monday in the death of a high school student at a bus stop.
The jury acquitted Joshua Aaron Block, a 26-year-old staff sergeant at New River, on charges of felony involuntary manslaughter and felony passing a stopped school bus.
On Block’s side of the courtroom, there was an audible gasp as Judge Grant read the verdicts of not guilty for both charges.
The family of David Palacio, the 16-year-old Dixon High School student who was hit and killed, quietly cried and embraced.
The six-day trial ended after an hour of deliberation.
District Attorney J.B. Askins was clearly distraught by the decision.
Only hours earlier, he told the 12-person jury during closing arguments the fault lied with Block, who had 14 seconds from the time he first saw the bus to the collision to slow down.
“The defendant should have been slowing down long, long before he got to the bus,” said Askins. “He should have begun slowing down when he saw the flashing yellow lights.”
Block’s attorney, Ed Bailey, told the jurors a different version during closing arguments.
He said the fault lied with the bus driver, who wasn’t paying attention and should’ve activated the red lights and stop arm much sooner.
“She was not looking for some reason,” said Bailey. “She was not doing what the law and the procedures of being a bus driver required of her.”
Both families declined to speak on camera.
Palacio’s mother said only that justice was denied.
On Friday, Block became visibly upset while recounting to the jury the events of that morning.
Block said the red lights and stop arm were not out as he approached the bus. He was confused about where it was going to stop when his car hit Palacio.
“I saw the children standing at the road, and I thought that’s where the bus was going because it was a group of children standing there,” Block said. “I kept going and as I got up even with the bus, that’s when everything happened.”
Block described hitting the teen, saying it sounded like a loud bang. His windshield cracked on the driver’s side.
“After the accident, while I was still driving, I screamed at myself ‘No, there’s no way,'” said Block.
Block performed CPR on the teen, but Palacio later died at Onslow Memorial Hospital.
Block remained on the stand for two hours Friday.
DA Jamie Askins asked Block repeatedly if the stop arm was out. Block said it came out as his car hit the student.
The defense called additional witnesses over the course of the day. Some were character witnesses, but one, Sgt. Jessica Brewer, was both a friend of the Blocks and was also behind the bus that morning.
The DA pressed Brewer on if she saw the stop arm when Block hit Palacio. After repeated questioning, she stated that the stop arm was on its way out when the teen was hit.
Palacio’s family sat quietly on the front row the entire time, holding hands and praying.
His death deeply affected the Dixon High School community and launched a debate over school bus safety.
“Every year we try to do something to help,” said Suzie Ulbrich, Onslow County Schools public information officer. “We add more cameras every year because really we find that is the way we can address the situation with reporting it.”
The school system added 27 extended stop arms with four cameras each after Palacio’s death.