By Darrell Todd Maurina
The jury in the vehicular homicide trial of Harry L. Downey recessed without a verdict Thursday night after more than two hours of deliberations.
Debates about basic facts and the interpretations of those facts have been frequent since the trial began Monday in the courtroom of Judge Stephen Quinn, according to trial testimony and closing arguments.
Downey faces charges of homicide by vehicle and driving on the wrong side of the roadway in connection with a July 13, 2001, crash that killed Anna Beth Austin north of Melrose, and could also be convicted of the lesser included charge of careless driving.
Police and prosecutors acknowledged during the trial that police hadn’t tested Downey’s blood alcohol level until six hours after the crash and then received a result of .04 — well within the legal limit. However, police and civilians who had been at the scene offered contradictory testimony on whether they smelled alcohol on Downey’s breath. Other points disputed during trial testimony included whether mud on the roadway and a light mist caused Downey’s truck to spin out of control and whether Downey’s diabetes contributed to his failing a field sobriety test.
In his closing arguments, special prosecutor Thomas Rutledge of Carlsbad reminded the jury that Downey said he couldn’t drink alcohol due to his diabetes but later admitted to having a large bottle of Jim Beam whisky in the bed of his pickup truck.
“Why does someone drink alcohol and then lie about drinking alcohol? Because they know they have done something wrong,” Rutledge said. “You have the fact that he consumed alcohol. You have the fact that (the victim’s son) Cody Coffee had driven that same stretch of road, not at the posted speed, but like a bat out of you know where, trying to get help for his mother, and had no problem whatsoever.”
Rutledge said even if the jury decided there was reasonable doubt about Downey’s intoxication level, they should convict on the lesser charge of careless driving.
“An individual chooses to get behind the wheel of a vehicle with these factors, having drunk alcohol, knowing you may need to eat because of blood sugar levels, and he drives anyway — that’s reckless,” Rutledge said.
Defense attorney Hal Greig argued that the state hadn’t met the legal test of proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
“One of the biggest problems in this case is there are too many different stories and contradictions,” Greig said.
“These are serious charges, folks, but there are serious circumstances and gaps in the evidence and you would have to ignore these inconsistencies and gaps in the evidence to find my client guilty.”
Greig particularly objected to police waiting six hours to administer sobriety tests to an elderly diabetic who had not been allowed to eat.
“Listen to his words on that tape. I think he sounded pretty good, his words didn’t sound slurred to me,” Greig said. “They didn’t even let him wear his glasses. Come on folks, that isn’t the way they should be doing things out there.”
Greig said the case, when boiled down to its basic facts, is simply an unavoidable accident.
“I submit that whether he had alcohol or not, whether he had enough sleep or not, whether he had enough medicine or food or not, or whether his wife burned his eggs that morning or not, this accident was going to happen because it was the wrong place at the wrong time,” Greig said.
The jury was scheduled to resume deliberations at 8:30 a.m. today in the county courthouse. Court personnel asked visitors not to arrive until 8:45 a.m. to avoid mingling with the jury panel.