June 13, 2012 in City

Hung jury focused on pot-smoking drivers

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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A second jury in nine months failed to agree on whether a Deer Park man’s marijuana use caused a fatal crash, highlighting the lack of accepted legal standards for when motorists should be considered too stoned to drive.

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

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. Jury members 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.

Nordtvedt said the jury members mostly talked about how the weeklong 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 to comment when contacted by The Spokesman-Review.

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 9 to 10 mph in a 1985 Pontiac Firebird in the southbound lane when he crossed the centerline some 47 feet shy of his intended intersection.

In opening arguments, 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 nanograms 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 Tuesday, 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.

A jury last September deadlocked on a 6-6 vote on whether marijuana 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 to 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.”


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