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Second jury hangs on stoned-while driving trial

Rene Blaume, 54 (Blaume family)
Rene Blaume, 54 (Blaume family)

A second jury in nine months failed to agree today whether a Deer Park man’s marijuana use caused a fatal crash, highlighting the lack of accepted standards to determine when motorists should be considered too stoned to drive.

A Spokane County jury deliberated only about seven hours before announcing the impasse Tuesday in the vehicular homicide trial of Jonathon P. Bales, 22, who caused the fatal crash on July 26, 2010, that severed the leg and killed 54-year-old Rene Blaume.

Blaume’s sister sobbed in the courtroom and several jurors looked down as the jury foreman confirmed the stalemate to Superior Court Judge Linda Tompkins when she asked whether the jury had a reasonable chance of coming to a unanimous decision.

Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Mary Ann Brady and defense attorney Anna Nordtvedt both spoke with the jury. It did not reveal how the count came down and the attorneys both said they were prohibited from asking.

“We were really down to only one issue: was the impairment the cause of the collision,” Brady said. “We have 70 years of studies” on how alcohol affects drivers, but medical organizations and law enforcement agencies have not been able to agree on a similar standard for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Nordvedt said the jury members mostly talked about how the week-long trial was a learning experience.

“They really didn’t say much about the impairment,” she said. “Marijuana causes sharply divided opinions. It can be a heated topic. But in this case we don’t know because they didn’t tell us.”

Several jurors declined comment when approached by a reporter.

Brady said she will have to visit both with the Blaume family, which quickly left after the jury revealed its impasse. Brady must also consult with Jack Driscoll, chief criminal deputy prosecuting attorney, before deciding whether to try the case for a third time.

Blaume was driving her iScooter 45 mph in the northbound lane of Wandermere Road and investigators estimated that Bales was driving a 1985 Pontiac Firebird 9 to 10 mph in the southbound lane when he crossed the centerline some 47 feet shy of his intended intersection.

In opening arguments, co-defense attorney Sean Downs conceded that Bales caused the crash but pointed out that none of the deputies at the scene noted in their reports that Bales appeared to have any level of impairment. He called the crash a “terribly tragic accident.”

A blood test revealed that he had 3.9 nano-grams of active TCH per milliliter in his system. But experts gave differing opinions about whether that level of intoxication was enough to cause Bales to make the premature turn.

After the impasse today, law enforcement responded to a report that both families had a verbal altercation in front of the Spokane County Courthouse. The situation resolved itself when Bales’ family members departed.

The Bales family “all said, ‘I just feel so bad for them,’” Nordvedt said, referring to the Blaume family.

A jury last September deadlocked an even 6-6 on whether the impairment caused the crash, Nordtvedt said. The same jury came in 10-2 to convict on the question of whether Bales showed reckless disregard by driving under the influence.

Brady said that until the state sets a standard for THC intoxication similar that for alcohol “it’s going to be every case going to litigation” and the accepted THC level will be “whatever the jurors think is appropriate.”