NEW PORT RICHEY — The defense has said again and again in this week's double-DUI manslaughter trial that no witness can put Shannon L. Stephen behind the wheel of the pickup that killed two pedestrians in 2006.
Then on Wednesday, hours before the case went to the jury, a defense witness said he saw someone behind the wheel that night — but it wasn't the defendant.
Walter Schubart Jr. testified he watched a drunken Stephen "hit on" his girlfriend at Seven's Bar & Grill that fateful evening. Schubart said he was standing in the parking lot when the defendant stumbled outside and urinated.
"His two friends were holding him up, carrying him out to his truck," Schubart told the jury. "They put Mr. Stephen in the passenger seat. The other friend proceeded to hop in the driver's seat, and they took off."
"What time did you observe this?" asked defense attorney Kenneth Foote.
"Right around 1 a.m.," the witness said.
It was 15 minutes later, authorities say, that Stephen's maroon Chevy pickup hit and killed Joseph Swiech, 26, and Sarah Gleason, 24, as they walked home on Grand Boulevard the morning of March 26, 2006.
Schubart could not identify who he saw driving. But his testimony dovetails with the defense's theory: that friends of Stephen loaded him in his own truck, drove it for him — and then, after the fatal crash, abandoned the truck and left a drunken, oblivious Stephen to take the rap.
Jurors began their deliberations in the case Wednesday night. Stephen, 36, is charged with two counts of DUI manslaughter and one count of leaving the scene of an accident involving death. He faces up to 45 years in prison.
No witnesses during the three-day trial have put Stephen behind the wheel when the pedestrians were struck.
The state has put on witnesses who testified that Stephen's blood-alcohol level was three times the legal level at which Florida law presumes impairment, that he was found sitting in his damaged pickup just a few miles from the fatal scene, and that he admitted he had been behind the wheel — an admission that a Florida Highway Patrol video camera failed to capture on audio.
In his closing argument Wednesday afternoon, prosecutor Eric Rosario reminded jurors that friends of Swiech and Gleason drove by a damaged pickup truck and saw a man standing by it, trying to hide. When they learned what happened, the friends chased down the pickup and found Stephen.
"They saw the same person they saw earlier," Rosario said.
But Foote said those friends failed to identify the man they saw the first time as Stephen. He also criticized the Florida Highway Patrol for a shoddy investigation and a "rush to judgment."
"We don't have a DUI," the defense attorney said in his closing argument. "We had a UI, because there was no evidence showing Shannon Stephen was the driver of this vehicle at the time that Sarah and Joseph were killed."