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Blame brakes, not alcohol, attorney says

The faulty brakes on Shaun McElrath's car - not her drinking - are to blame for the February 2000 accident which killed three people, her lawyer says.

By JIM ROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2001


The faulty brakes on Shaun McElrath's car -- not her drinking -- are to blame for the February 2000 accident which killed three people, her lawyer says.

INVERNESS -- Shaun McElrath testified in her own defense Friday and her lawyer delivered a passionate closing argument. But it remained unknown what effect those words would have on the jury that will decide the Inverness woman's fate.

The six-member panel was scheduled to begin deliberations Friday night. The jurors must decide whether McElrath, 34, is guilty of driving drunk and causing a February 2000 wreck that killed three people and permanently injured a fourth.

Defense lawyer Jim Cummins didn't avoid mentioning the victims during his closing argument. To the contrary, he placed the blame for their deaths and injuries squarely on his client's shoulders.

But that doesn't mean McElrath is guilty of a crime, Cummins said as his client, seated behind him, quietly cried.

"What killed these individuals . . . was her decision to get in the car and drive this piece of junk," Cummins said.

He referred to McElrath's 1978 Oldsmobile, whose brakes were worn. The defense argument is that McElrath was driving on Dawson Drive west of Inverness but was unable to stop at Croft Avenue.

She rammed into a Honda Civic carrying four people returning home from church. The driver, Israel Rodriguez, suffered injuries. His three passengers -- Rodriguez's wife, Nelia, and their friends, Ruben Sierra and his wife, Sylvia Padro -- all died.

McElrath told the jury she drank 8 ounces to 12 ounces of Wild Turkey whiskey the night of the wreck. She has said she started drinking at 5 p.m. and stopped at 7:30 p.m., about 90 minutes before the crash.

Cummins picked apart testimony from a state expert, who said McElrath's blood alcohol probably was between 0.14 or 0.16 when the crash happened. Under state law, a person is presumed impaired when the blood-alcohol level is at or above 0.08.

Those calculations were based on blood draws and breath tests McElrath took well after the wreck, the lawyer said.

"The state has no idea what it (McElrath's blood-alcohol level) was at the time of the accident," Cummins told the jury.

"There's already been four tragedies in this case," Cummins said. "Don't make it five."

Prosecutors, however, stuck by their story -- and their science.

As they had done throughout the weeklong trial, lawyers for the state meticulously constructed a stark timeline for the jury to consider.

At 10:23 p.m., almost 90 minutes after the crash, a technician at Citrus Memorial Hospital took two blood draws from McElrath. One was for legal purposes, the other for medical tests.

Both showed elevated -- 0.136 and 0.148 -- blood-alcohol levels.

Later, some 51/2 hours after the wreck, McElrath gave breath samples at the Citrus County jail. They registered her blood-alcohol reading at 0.46 and 0.47.

"She's sobering up, and that's obvious from the numbers," Assistant State Attorney Lisa Herndon said.

Those numbers -- along with the accused's own statements about when and how much she drank -- support the state theory that McElrath was legally intoxicated when the wreck happened.

The state agreed that McElrath's car was in bad shape. Indeed, a state witness testified that the back brakes didn't work. But the front brakes were working, prosecutors said.

Likewise, the defense nitpicking about technical evidence didn't jibe with the obvious facts, Herndon said during closing argument.

Consider the defense claim that McElrath could not, as the state argued, have been driving 45 mph or faster on Dawson.

McElrath's legal team said the speed was closer to 25 mph.

Herndon showed the jury pictures of both vehicles after the crash.

"There is absolutely no way she was traveling 25 miles per hour," the prosecutor said.

Likewise, Herndon said, the jury should remember the defendant's own words -- the ones she spoke immediately after the wreck, that is.

Jean Wright, a passer-by, stopped at the crash scene. She told the jury the defendant approached her and said: "It's a DUI. It's a DUI. Arrest me and take me to jail."

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