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Mistrial declared in double DUI manslaughter case

NEW PORT RICHEY — They squeezed more than 33 hours of evidence and testimony into three long days — and one late night — in Courtroom 2A.

The prosecution and defense in the double DUI manslaughter trial of Shannon L. Stephen gave jurors plenty to think about. Maybe too much.

"We the jury cannot come to a unanimous decision in this case," the foreman told the court late Wednesday night.

After three hours of deliberations — and a judge's order to try again — the jury deadlocked. The panel of three men and three women could not unanimously decide whether Stephen was behind the wheel of his pickup when it plowed into a couple, killing them.

Circuit Judge Jack Day declared a mistrial at 10:36 p.m. Barring some kind of deal, there will be a new trial.

The jury appeared split 4-2 for a guilty verdict. That's what the state told Mark Crispino, brother of victim Joseph Swiech.

"We've had trial dates since October of last year that just keep getting pushed off and postponed," Crispino said Thursday. "It's disappointing that it ends with a mistrial and knowing we have to do this again, knowing that we were so close to a guilty verdict"

•••

Joseph Swiech, 26, and Sarah Gleason, 24, were killed while walking along Grand Boulevard in the early morning hours of March 26, 2006. They had been drinking at Chasco Fiesta and chose not to drive home.

Authorities say Stephen made another choice. He's accused of drunkenly stumbling out of a bar, climbing in his pickup and running the couple over.

Stephen, 36, faced up to 45 years in prison if convicted of two counts of DUI manslaughter and one count of leaving the scene of an accident involving death.

Defense attorney Kenneth Foote pointed out Florida Highway Patrol's numerous errors in the investigation, and said no witness could place Stephen behind the wheel when the couple was killed. Foote's theory: a friend drove, then left Stephen behind to take the blame.

Prosecutor Eric Rosario had witnesses testify that Stephen was heavily intoxicated and was found in the truck minutes after the couple was hit.

•••

Testimony went until 8 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday. The case went to the jury at 7:13 p.m. Wednesday.

Why did jurors have to work so long and so late?

The judge set aside four days for the trial (his vacation was to begin today). All sides agreed to work late — including the jurors, the judge said. But once the case was over late Wednesday, he thought it best if jurors deliberate while it was fresh in their minds. The jury didn't even order dinner.

"They kept giving me the impression they wanted to keep plugging away," Day said.

Jurors did not return calls for comment Thursday. The judge said they were remorseful that they couldn't reach a verdict. Day told them not to be.

"They didn't fail," the judge said. "It's people taking principled positions on what they believe about the evidence and the burden of proof. That's what the system is all about."

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

Mistrial declared in double DUI manslaughter case 06/19/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 26, 2008 5:07pm]
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