TAMPA — James Braley was drunk and caused property damage three years ago on a Tampa highway, but he is not to blame for the death of another motorist who tried to help him, a Hillsborough jury decided Wednesday.
Braley, 39, was on trial for DUI manslaughter, but after nearly three hours of deliberations, the jury found him guilty of a lesser charge of driving under the influence. He was also convicted of DUI with property damage.
Defense attorneys argued that Amir Sarhaddi, 29, was solely responsible for leaving the safety of his vehicle to help Braley, who was drunk that night when he rear-ended a Jeep on Interstate 75.
When a car driven by another drunk driver killed Sarhaddi, it was not Braley's fault, jurors told the St. Petersburg Times after the trial.
"Mr. Braley never struck Mr. Sarhaddi (with his car)," said juror Danielle Servas, 23. "And Mr. Braley didn't coax him out of his car or ask for help."
She said jurors were split at the beginning of deliberations. Three had too many doubts to convict Braley of DUI manslaughter, and three thought the charge was warranted.
They took turns explaining their thoughts, Servas and juror Kelle Cope said. After about 2 1/2 hours, the whole room agreed.
The fatal chain of events started about 3 a.m. Oct. 28, 2007. Braley had a blood-alcohol level of 0.219 when he rear-ended a Jeep, investigators said.
Sarhaddi, who was coming home from a night out with his wife, avoided Braley's crash and got out to help. That's when a second driver, Jessica Paquette, hit two cars and Sarhaddi.
Paquette, whose blood alcohol was the same as Braley's, is now serving a five-year prison sentence for DUI manslaughter.
To convict Braley of DUI manslaughter, the state would have had to prove that Braley's actions contributed to Sarhaddi's death. Assistant State Attorney Barbara Coleman said it did because the initial accident, which she said was caused by Braley, is the only reason Sarhaddi left his vehicle.
"It's the reason Mr. Sarhaddi was out in the middle of the road on Oct. 28, 2007, trying to be a good Samaritan," she said in closing statements.
Jurors weren't convinced that Braley was responsible for the crash. The Jeep's driver was not brought in to testify, and during deliberations some of the jurors wondered if he, too, was impaired, Cope said.
"We were wondering if he caused it all," she said.
Sarhaddi had an illegal blood alcohol level that night, an autopsy showed, but that fact was not disclosed to the jury. When told about the autopsy after the trial, several jurors said that would not have influenced their decision. During deliberations, they were more interested in the Jeep driver's state of mind, Servas said.
When the verdict was read, Braley embraced his attorney and wiped away tears. He declined to comment but his attorney, Richard Giglio, said that he and his client are pleased.
"Was he intoxicated? Yes," Giglio said outside the courtroom. "Did the facts show he was responsible for that man's death? No."
He said Braley would most likely have pleaded guilty to DUI and DUI with property damage and avoided a trial if the State Attorney's Office had offered that option. It didn't, Giglio said.
If Braley had been convicted of DUI manslaughter, a felony, he could have gotten 15 years in prison. Because the DUI conviction is his first, it's a misdemeanor. DUI with property damage also is a misdemeanor.
Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 19.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.