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Expert Says Defendant May Not Have Been Drunk

A blood-alcohol expert who testified on behalf of Exxon Valdez Capt. Joseph Hazelwood told a jury Thursday that Cathy Van Stedum may not have been drunk when she ran over and killed a 5-year-old girl last Halloween.

University of Washington Professor Michael Hlastala said Van Stedum’s blood-alcohol level may have been only 0.03 percent to 0.05 percent at the time of the accident, even though the level was measured at 0.17 an hour and 20 minutes later.

The reason, he said, is that Van Stedum’s blood hadn’t yet absorbed the alcohol she drank before the accident in Newport.

But Hlastala conceded his testimony was based on the assumption that the only alcohol Van Stedum consumed was during the hour she spent at a restaurant immediately before her car struck trick-or-treater Krissy Jones.

Defense attorney Dennis Scott plans to present witnesses who will testify that Van Stedum, a former sheriff’s dispatcher, had no drinks before going to the now-defunct Cafe New Mexico in Oldtown, Idaho, which adjoins Newport.

Hlastala’s testimony conflicted with Washington State Patrol Sgt. Jeff Sale’s testimony Thursday that Van Stedum claimed to have had only one rum drink before the accident. The defense expert said Van Stedum would have needed 6.2 standard 1-ounce drinks to achieve the 0.17 blood-alcohol level found in a test at Newport Community Hospital.

“I concluded they must have been strong drinks,” Hlastala testified, perhaps three doubles or two triples.

Sale said his observations indicated Van Stedum was drunk at the time of the accident. He said her movements were “slow and unsure” when she walked 30 feet to his patrol car to give him a statement.

Hlastala testified out of sequence because of scheduling problems. The trial began Monday in Pend Oreille County Superior Court, and Prosecutor Tom Metzger expects to rest his case today.

Hlastala holds a doctorate and teaches physiology, biophysics and medicine. He testified on behalf of supertanker Capt. Hazelwood, who was acquitted of charges that his drinking contributed to the March 1989 accident in which the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The collision caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Hazelwood was charged with second-degree mischief, a felony, and three misdemeanors, including operation of a vessel while intoxicated. But a jury convicted him only of negligent discharge of oil. A judge sentenced Hazelwood in March 1990 to pay $50,000 in restitution and spend 1,000 hours cleaning up the oil.

Metzger said if Van Stedum is convicted of vehicular homicide as charged, she could get no jail time, or as much as three years, five months in prison. The broad range under state sentencing guidelines is because the law provides three different sentences based on the reasons for the conviction.

The guidelines call for 31 to 41 months if the crime was caused by drunken driving, 21 to 27 months if caused by reckless driving and 15 to 20 months if caused by “disregard for the safety of others.” Because Van Stedum has no criminal record, she would qualify for a special 0-to-90-day sentence as a first offender if convicted for disregarding the safety of others.

State law says defendants may be presumed guilty of intoxicated driving if their blood-alcohol level exceeds the legal threshold of 0.10 within two hours of the offense - as in Van Stedum’s case. However, Metzger said case law makes it unclear whether the principal applies to vehicular homicide charges.

Van Stedum’s case is expected to go to the jury early next week.



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