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Before I-75 pedestrian fatality, driver testifies she was distracted by victim's parked truck

TAMPA — Just before she fatally hit a man who had stepped onto Interstate 75 to help a crash victim, Jessica Paquette was distracted by something beyond the eight alcoholic drinks she had that night.

As she drove, she noticed a truck stopped in the shoulder to her right. It belonged to the man she was about to hit.

She saw the crash up ahead, but not soon enough.

By the time her Saturn came to rest near 3 a.m. the night of Oct. 28, 2007, she had hit two cars and 29-year-old Amir Sarhaddi, who left his truck to help strangers.

Paquette, 26, walked into a Hillsborough County courtroom Tuesday in prison orange and chains. She sat as a witness for the state attorney who prosecuted her on a driving-under-the-influence manslaughter charge that earned her a five-year prison sentence when she pleaded guilty in January.

Now, a second driver is on trial — the crash victim Sarhaddi was rushing to aid, 39-year-old James Braley, who prosecutors said was also drunk that night when he rear-ended a Jeep, causing the scene that compelled Sarhaddi to pull over.

A state trooper testified Braley "stunk like a drunk." Prosecutors cited a blood-alcohol level of 0.219 percent. While Braley didn't hit Sarhaddi, prosecutors say he contributed to the cause of his death, which also constitutes DUI manslaughter.

Braley's defense attorney, Rick Giglio, told jurors on Monday that Sarhaddi alone was responsible for the fatal decision he made to leave the safety of his car and run onto the dark highway.

Giglio filed a motion last month to tell jurors about Sarhaddi's own blood-alcohol level, which the Hillsborough medical examiner registered at 0.13 percent. Doctors also found he had taken one Xanax pill, which could have been in his system for 24 hours. And preliminary tests detected cannabinoids, but doctors can't conclusively say Sarhaddi had smoked marijuana.

Giglio argued that the prosecution's case was based on Braley's inebriation while contributing to the cause of Sarhaddi's death, so he wanted a chance to introduce evidence that Sarhaddi had contributed to his own death.

But last week, Circuit Judge William Fuente ruled against that motion and decided jurors wouldn't find out about Sarhaddi's blood-alcohol level. He said it wasn't relevant. Prosecutors cited case law to keep the evidence out, saying other judges have ruled that if the victim is not the "sole proximate cause of an accident," a defendant can't use the victim's conduct as a defense.

Sarhaddi had no criminal record pointing to a drinking or drug problem. He was a 29-year-old father of two who worked with his dad and treasured date nights with his wife.

That night, he didn't drink to a point that could've caused this kind of destruction, his brother Amin Sarhaddi said.

He isn't on trial, his mother Brenda Sarhaddi said. He died trying to do something good.

Attorneys will likely give closing statements today.

Before I-75 pedestrian fatality, driver testifies she was distracted by victim's parked truck 11/02/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 9:12pm]
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