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Attorney tries to punch holes in DUI case evidence

NEW PORT RICHEY — It was a night for shooting pool and throwing back rum and Cokes.

Then Shannon L. Stephen staggered outside, his truck keys in his pocket.

Witnesses spent day two of Stephen's DUI manslaughter trial Tuesday recreating the next fateful minutes.

Stephen was loud and boisterous — and very drunk, his friends testified. They helped guide him out of Seven's Bar & Grill in the early morning hours of March 26, 2006.

"That's when I offered to drive Shannon's truck for him," friend Marvin Dalzell testified.

"Did he take you up on that offer?" asked prosecutor Eric Rosario.

"Nope," Dalzell said. "He was very emphatic that he would drive."

Stephen almost hit two friends on his way out of the parking lot, Dalzell said.

Minutes later, authorities say, he ran into Joseph Swiech and Sarah Gleason, killing them both.

•••

Stephen, 36, is on trial this week for two counts of DUI manslaughter and one count of leaving the scene of a crash involving death. Authorities say his blood-alcohol level was three times the level at which Florida law presumes impairment. He faces up to 45 years in prison.

Joseph Swiech and Sarah Gleason had been drinking after Chasco Fiesta that night. They called friends for a ride, then started walking home on Grand Boulevard.

Jim Ramsey was one of the friends who came to pick them up. On the way to meet them, he testified, he passed by a badly damaged pickup truck at Grand Boulevard and State Road 54.

"I saw the driver bolt and hide behind the traffic control box," Ramsey testified. The driver was also on his cell phone.

Then Ramsey found his friends lying on Grand Boulevard. Swiech, 26, was already dead. Gleason, 24, later died at a St. Petersburg hospital.

Ramsey and friend Rick Scott drove back to find the driver of the pickup.

It was Stephen, they testified.

•••

Defense attorney Kenneth Foote told jurors Monday that no one can say his client was behind the wheel. His client was definitely drunk, he told jurors, but a friend was driving the truck when it killed the couple.

But that friend disappeared after the fatal crash, according to the defense theory, leaving Stephen to take the rap.

That strategy hinges on convincing jurors that Stephen was not the man first spotted by the victims' friends near the damaged pickup, talking on his cell phone, trying to hide.

The defense also pointed out the mistakes made in this case by the Florida Highway Patrol.

Jurors watched a grainy, shaky videotape of Stephen's field-sobriety tests — but they couldn't hear anything. The audio failed to record, Trooper Ronald Evans testified. The DUI report also went missing, the trooper testified, along with the original Breathalyzer report (a copy was submitted into evidence).

The trooper said he didn't remember most of Stephen's responses to his questions. But he remembered the answer to the first question:

"Were you driving?" the trooper said he asked Stephen. "His response was 'Yes.' "

"But the statement that Mr. Stephen was driving never made it into your report, right?" Foote said. "That was the one that was lost?"

"I was hoping it would be on the tape," the trooper said.

Then Foote hammered home his most important point: No one can say they saw Stephen behind the wheel when the couple was killed.

"Nowhere is there any ... witness to say who was the driver at the scene of the crime?" Foote asked.

"That is correct, counselor," the trooper said.

•••

On Tuesday evening, jurors heard from Cara Wallace. Her husband, Jim, was out with Stephen that night. She drove to the scene where Stephen's pickup was found after the crash.

"He (Stephen) said he hit something," she testified. "But he didn't hit people."

The trial will continue today.

Attorney tries to punch holes in DUI case evidence 06/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 24, 2008 11:06am]
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