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Lawyer says client wasn't at wheel in DUI fatalities

NEW PORT RICHEY — No one disputes it was Shannon Leyland Stephen's pick-up truck that ran down and killed Joseph Swiech and Sarah Gleason as they walked home from the Chasco Fiesta two years ago.

As Stephen went on trial Monday for their deaths, his lawyer conceded that, yes, his client's maroon Chevy pick-up was involved. And yes, his client was drunk in those early morning hours of March 26, 2006.

But defense attorney Kenneth Foote said the state will not be able to prove that Stephen was the one behind the wheel.

Foote hinted in the defense's opening argument that it was two friends with Stephen that night who may be responsible.

"He is not guilty of this," Foote told the jurors. "I'm confident when you hear about all the mistakes in this case, the rush to judgment, the conflicting stories, you're going to see what really happened on that evening."

But Assistant State Attorney Eric Rosario told jurors the evidence was clear: The victims' friends pulled Stephen from the driver's seat of the damaged truck minutes after he allegedly ran over the couple on Grand Boulevard and kept going.

The prosecutor said the defendant also had a blood-alcohol level of 0.240 —- three times the level at which Florida presumes a driver is impaired.

"The defendant was inching the truck across State Road 54," Rosario said. "(The friends) block him in, yank him out of the truck and wait for the police.

"(Stephen) has the classic signs of intoxication," he said. "He doesn't seem to know what's going on."

Swiech, 26, died at the scene. Gleason, 24, died at a St. Petersburg hospital. They had planned to marry.

Stephen, 36, is charged with two counts of DUI manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident involving death.

He faces up to 45 years in prison if convicted. The trial continues today.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Lawyer says client wasn't at wheel in DUI fatalities 06/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2008 9:54am]
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