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One DUI retrial down, two more to go

By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002

INVERNESS -- After three years, two trials and countless number of sleepless nights, Dorothy Weber hopes she can finally stop reliving the crash that claimed the life of her husband, Carl.

"I'm so thankful it's over," said Mrs. Weber, 73, who was also injured in the April 1999 wreck. "I just turned it over to the Lord. It was all in his hands."

On Wednesday, a jury found Vernon Hembree guilty of one count of DUI-manslaughter and two counts of DUI causing bodily injury. He is scheduled to be sentenced at a hearing May 7.

It was the second time Hembree, 24, a Floral City construction worker, was convicted of the charges. The first verdict, in May 2000, was thrown out by an appellate court in August after the state Supreme Court issued a decision expected to affect hundreds of drunken driving cases throughout the state.

Hembree's second conviction was a triumph for Citrus County prosecutors, but the victory may be short-lived. On March 28, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yet another Citrus DUI defendant deserves a new trial, bringing the number of reversals to three.

Howard Bonine was convicted of DUI-manslaughter in April 2000 after he was charged with plowing into a motorcycle driven by James "Shamus" Quinn.

A test revealed Bonine had a blood-alcohol level of 0.226, almost three times the level at which a driver is presumed impaired.

At his trial, the Florida Highway Patrol said Bonine was heading north on U.S. 19 when he rammed into the rear of Quinn's motorcycle. Quinn died at the scene after his bike flew forward more than 200 feet.

Bonine was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Also receiving a new trial is Jack Bass, 73, who drove off State Road 44 in Inverness at a curve and hit a utility pole in September 1998. His passenger, Lewis Bullock, died at the scene.

Blood tests taken after the crash showed a likely blood alcohol level of 0.19 to 0.23.

Assistant State Attorney Donald McCathran said he plans to go forward with a new trial. Bass' next court appearance is scheduled for May 2.

In all of these cases, jurors were given instructions by a judge that they could assume a defendant was guilty if a test showed a blood-alcohol level above 0.08.

But in 2000, the state Supreme Court decided to bar judges from instructing juries in DUI cases that they could assume a defendant is drunk based on blood-alcohol levels due to questions about the FDLE's handling of the tests.

In its decision, the Supreme Court found the FDLE did not have clear guidelines for collecting blood evidence.

Without a way of assessing whether the evidence had been handled properly, jurors could not draw fair conclusions about whether someone was drunk, the court ruled.

The ruling is frustrating for prosecutors, who must re-create a trial that concluded several years earlier.

"It's much harder to try a case the second time," said McCathran, who prosecuted Hembree at both trials.

"Witnesses forget, witnesses die, witnesses move away," added Assistant State Attorney Richard Buxman, co-counsel at Hembree's trial.

"We were just very fortunate in this case that all the witnesses were still around," McCathran said.

According to court testimony, Hembree spent the afternoon "mudslinging" at a local bog before climbing into his mud-caked Jeep and driving west on Sandpiper Drive.

Several witnesses said they saw Hembree drinking beer and tequila throughout the day.

At approximately 8:40 p.m., Hembree's Jeep collided with the Dodge Intrepid driven by Carl Weber, 74. The Webers were going home from church.

Carl Weber was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at Citrus Memorial Hospital.

Hembree's attorney, Flem K. Whited, argued at trial that it was Weber who crossed the double yellow line and caused the crash. FHP investigators said Hembree swerved over the line.

Whited said he plans to appeal, especially in light of a decision by Judge Ric Howard to allow prosecutors to use Hembree's testimony from the first trial, even after his client opted not to speak at the second.

Hembree's statement was used to contradict testimony given by a defense witness who said Hembree's Jeep did not rotate after the collision. At the 2000 trial, Hembree said his Jeep did "a 180" after striking the Webers' Intrepid.

Mrs. Weber, who sat patiently through the three-day trial, said the second time was much more difficult than the first.

"You have to go through everything all over again," she said.

Her children could not afford to fly to Florida for a second time, so she was surrounded by friends and supporters from her church, Fort Cooper Baptist.

Their help and her faith helped her through the ordeal for a second time, Mrs. Weber said.

"The truth always wins in the end," she said. "If you do the crime, you're going to have to do the time, one way or another."

-- Carrie Johnson can be reached at 860-7309 or cjohnson@sptimes.com.

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