Vehicular homicide trial gets underway
LEWISTOWN – The first day of what could be a three-day jury trial for a man charged with vehicular homicide and other related offenses got underway Tuesday in the Mifflin County Court of Common Pleas.
Carl Briggs, 43, is alleged to have been under the influence of alcohol on Oct. 8, 2011, when his SUV struck and killed 64-year-old Bruce E. Kauffman and 63-year-old Judy K. Kauffman while they were riding their Harley Davidson motorcycle on U.S. 22/522 near McVeytown. Briggs also faces charges of homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, aggravated assault by vehicle while DUI, DUI, involuntary manslaughter and several other traffic violations.
Briggs’ blood alcohol content was .077 when he was tested at Lewistown Hospital shortly after the accident, which is below the legal limit of .08 in Pennsylvania.
Much of the testimony heard on Tuesday circled around whether Briggs was impaired at the time of the accident, and if that had been a contributing factor in the crash.
Assistant District Attorney Dave Barron said the jury would hear testimony from an expert that will state Briggs’ BAC at the time of the accident was .08 or higher.
During his opening statements, defense attorney Joseph Amendola suggested the sun or perhaps his clients diabetic condition were contributing factors to the crash, not the four beers he drank during the hours leading up to the accident. Amendola also said trying to reconstruct BAC by extrapolation backwards in time is “hocus pocus.”
Several people testified Tuesday about the dangers associated with drinking alcohol for individuals with a diabetic condition.
Dianne Edwards testified Briggs had been at her place drinking with her husband the afternoon of the crash, however he only had four beers.
Edwards said she has a background in healthcare and also knows the potential dangers of a diabetic drinking alcohol, and would not have let Briggs drive had he exhibited any signs of impairment.
Barry George took the stand shortly after Edwards and described how the accident unfolded.
George said Briggs was attempting to pass him when he noticed a motorcycle coming in the opposite direction. He attempted to slow down in order to give Briggs room to move back over into the southbound lane, but the SUV and motorcycle collided nearly head on.
Both George and his wife Dolores testified they believed the motorcycle had it’s headlight on.
Amendola asked the George’s if it was a sunny day, and if the sun had been in their eyes.
The George’s confirmed it was sunny, both of them claimed to have been wearing sunglasses at the time of the accident.
McVeytown Fire Captain Doug Boozle was the first to respond to the scene of the accident. Boozle said he did smell alcohol on Briggs’ breath and noticed he had glassy, blood shot eyes.
Boozle said Briggs kept repeating “I can’t believe I did this.”
Emergency Medical Technician Nick Price also responded to the scene and claimed to have detected alcohol on Briggs’ breath.
Price testified Briggs did state he had been drinking prior to the accident, however other than the odor of alcohol he exhibited no signs of impairment, such as slurred speech or difficulty walking.
Price said midway through talking with Briggs he complained of low blood sugar, which was dealt with by giving him two doses of oral glucose. Price said after the second batch of glucose Briggs slumped over in the ambulance and was unresponsive.
While en route to Lewistown Hospital, Price contacted a paramedic who could administer a glucose injection. Price also said Briggs was very distraught about the accident and during his diabetic episode in the ambulance he was in and out of consciousness, however he eventually came around and was once again coherent and alert.
Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Stephen Griffith testified he also smelled alcohol on Briggs’ breath and his speech was slowed.
Griffith said Briggs was very cooperative and agreed to submit to a BAC test at the Lewistown Hospital.
Griffith then walked the jury through several photos taken at the scene of the accident, in addition to a video he shot the next day depicting the routes each vehicle was traveling prior to the accident.
There appears to be some dispute as to whether either Bruce Kauffman or Briggs applied their brakes prior to the accident, however one of the photos shown to the jury depicted a single motorcycle tire-sized skid mark at the accident site.
There were several people who testified about the chain of custody regarding Briggs’ blood samples, as well as another state police trooper who conducted an interview with Briggs at the hospital.
Amendola appeared to take issue with the fact that not every person who had contact with his client’s blood samples was made available for trial, including several people at Quest Diagnostics, where a second round of testing had been conducted.
Among the last to testify was Dr. J. Ward Donovan, chief medical toxicologist at Pinnacle Health Systems, who was able to extrapolate that Briggs’ BAC at the time of the accident was at or above .08 and may have been as high as .10.
Donovan spent a great deal of time explaining to the jury how he reached his conclusions using a well established formula.
Donovan also said that it is all but impossible to determine visually if someone is impaired from alcohol, unless the person is a falling down drunk or has slurred speech. He cited a study in which people in his own profession, as well as others in the medical community, were unable to identify people who were severely intoxicated.
“It’s a fallacy that you can look at someone and tell whether they are intoxicated,” he said.
Amendola asked if he wanted the jury to disregard the testimony of others who assert his client did not appear to be impaired.
Donovan said the jury ultimately will have to decide for themselves, however he believes that science trumps a person’s personal observation of a particular individual allegedly under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
At one point Amendola asked if the soft drink Mountain Dew could be used to keep a diabetic episode in check, given the high sugar content of the drink. Amendola made mention periodically during testimony that his client had a bottle of Mountain Dew on him at the time of the accident, and drank the beverage often.
Donovan said Mountain Dew could not be used to reverse a diabetic event.
Briggs remains free on bail and testimony will continue this morning beginning at 8:30 a.m. The prosecution is expected to rest its case this morning. It remains unclear if Briggs will testify in his own defense.
Pending further court action, Briggs remains free on bail.