Unusual DUI manslaughter trial begins in Hillsborough

TAMPA — Near 3 a.m. on Oct. 28, 2007, three lives crossed paths on Interstate 75.

One man rear-ended a Jeep and caused it to flip, authorities said, noting his blood-alcohol level at 0.219 percent.

A second man pulled over and ran to help. His blood-alcohol level, the medical examiner said, was 0.13 percent.

A third driver sealed all their fates when she crashed into them both. Florida Highway Patrol records say her blood alcohol level matched the first driver's, at 0.219.

Amir Sarhaddi, the good Samaritan, died.

Jessica Paquette went to prison.

And this week, the man prosecutors say caused the first crash is on trial before a jury in a Hillsborough County courtroom.

Though his car never made contact with Sarhaddi, James Braley is charged with DUI manslaughter. Florida law says a person is guilty of the crime if his intoxication — typically, a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or higher — caused or contributed to the cause of a death.

"As a result of Mr. Braley's actions, Mr. Sarhaddi is dead," prosecutor Barbara Coleman said during opening statements Monday.

Not so, Braley's attorney, Rick Giglio, said, holding Sarhaddi accountable for risking his own life. Giglio told jurors the victim made a fatal decision.

"He made the decision to leave the safety of his car and run into the middle of one of the busiest roadways in Florida," Giglio said. "Mr. Sarhaddi is ultimately responsible for the results of that decision."

A judge, though, ruled against a defense motion to tell the jury about Sarhaddi's blood-alcohol level.

The case is so unusual that a cable court channel showed up to cover it. Two witnesses took the stand Monday, but the most emotional testimony is yet to come..

Jessica Paquette, now 26, will talk about the crash that earned her a five-year prison sentence and a DUI manslaughter conviction, and separated her from her little boy.

She took a plea deal in January. Her family and friends filled two courtroom benches Monday in case she testified early.

And Sarhaddi's wife, Stacey, will tell jurors about the last moments she spent with her husband, a 29-year-old father of two.

He was a half-Iranian Tampa native who loved the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and worked in telecommunications with his dad. He worked so much that it was a treat to go out on a date.

The night of the accident, the couple dropped off their 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son with Sarhaddi's parents. Then, they headed out.

Braley, who is now 39, was at the Guavaween celebration that night, prosecutors said, downing Crown Royal whiskey at Ybor City's Green Iguana Bar and Grill. Braley and the driver of the Jeep he hit suffered minor injuries.

Paquette was out having five beers and a shot.

Sarhaddi and his wife were headed south on Interstate 75 near the Brandon area when they noticed the crash and pulled over. He didn't know Braley, but family and friends have said he was the type to help a stranger.

His wife watched from the car as he ran toward the crash.

And she searched for him when Paquette's Saturn added to the pileup. But Sarhaddi had hit its windshield, rolled up on its hood and flown off.

He was gone.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Unusual DUI manslaughter trial begins in Hillsborough 11/01/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 12:53am]

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