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Attorney says man's beliefs led to death

But the prosecutor says a drunken driver is to blame for the Jehovah's Witnesses member's death.

Thomas Branco made it clear after his legs were crushed in a highway crash last year that he would not accept a blood transfusion because of his religious beliefs.

On Tuesday, the lawyer representing the man accused of DUI manslaughter said 24-year-old "T.J." Branco was responsible for his own death because a transfusion might have saved his life.

Darwin Klinger, 56, of Gibsonton, was the driver of the car that hit Branco, his attorney, Wayne Timmerman of Tampa, told the jury.

"I quarrel with no one's religion," Timmerman said. "But (Branco) made a decision _ which his parents joined in _ to refuse to accept a blood transfusion. This is a tragedy that could have been avoided."

But the prosecutor asked the jury to remember that the fatal injuries were caused when a drunk driver hit Branco's car.

"It is likely _ but not guaranteed _ that Thomas Branco would have lived if he got a transfusion," said Assistant State Attorney Frank Talbot. "But it is guaranteed he would have lived if he had not been injured."

The Branco family belongs to the Metropolitan Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in St. Petersburg. Members believe that abstinence from blood products is a direct law from God, said Richard Gelinas, an elder of the congregation, who is among about 25 friends of Branco's attending the trial.

The crash occurred when Branco and his mother, Karen, were on their way home to St. Petersburg after visiting his girlfriend in Frostproof. It was about 10:20 p.m. on Sept. 20, 1999, when his car broke down on State Road 60 west of downtown Bartow.

Karen Branco testified Tuesday that she begged her son not to get out of the car to push it off the road. But he said, "Ma, we can't just sit here."

Almost as soon as he began pushing, he was hit from behind, she said. He was thrown 33 feet, landing a few lanes away on the four-lane highway.

At the hospital, she said she was told that her son refused a transfusion and it was likely he would die without it. She said it was his decision.

"One of the first things he said upon arrival was, "I am a Jehovah's Witness and I don't want blood under any circumstances,' " surgeon Rhonda Fishel testified.

Doctors amputated both of Branco's legs, but he died soon after surgery.

The cause of death, Fishel said, was trauma and loss of blood.

Prosecutor Talbot said Klinger is responsible for Branco's death and said he was driving while he was impaired by alcohol.

Klinger's blood-alcohol level was nearly twice the legal standard of 0.08 used in drunken driving cases in Florida to determine that a driver is impaired.