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Defendant: Driver was in wrong lane

A man on trial for DUI manslaughter says he didn't cause the April 1999 accident in which a man died.

By BILL VARIAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


INVERNESS -- For the past year, the official version of what happened that Sunday night in April 1999 has remained largely unchanged.

Vernon Hembree, then 21, allegedly hopped in his new Jeep after a full day of drinking and "mudslinging" with friends at a mud hole in eastern Inverness. Emerging from a bend on Sandpiper Drive around 8:40 p.m., he crossed the center line and crashed into a car carrying an older couple on their way home from church, killing its driver.

The story remained unchanged through much of Tuesday, the opening day of Hembree's trial on a charge of driving under the influence-manslaughter and two counts of DUI causing injury. Hembree faces at least 11 years in prison if convicted of killing 74-year-old Carl D. Weber while being drunk behind the wheel.

But after more than five hours of testimony, Hembree took the stand. He told the jury that it was Weber who was in the wrong lane. Unable to avoid the car because of a utility pole on his side of the road, he collided with the Webers near the double yellow line, he said.

"I didn't cause it," Hembree said. "He was coming across the center line. That's what caused me to hit my brakes."

The testimony stood in contrast to the Florida Highway Patrol account, which placed Hembree's Jeep well past the center line at the point of impact. Cpl. Earl Frazier, the traffic homicide investigator who handled the case for the highway patrol, said Tuesday a broken tie rod from beneath the Jeep scarred the road six feet past the center line where the collision occurred.

His account immediately followed that of Marc Bruzdziak, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement lab analyst, who said a blood sample taken from Hembree one hour and 40 minutes after the crash showed he had a blood-alcohol level of .103. The level at which impairment is presumed is .08.

More than 50 people sat in the gallery for the opening day of the trial, which is expected to conclude today. About 30 of them were from Fort Cooper Baptist Church, where Weber was a deacon and his widow, Dorothy, is still a member. They sat behind the prosecutor, Donald McCathran Jr., as did Rex Sparklin, a lawyer who took notes throughout should Mrs. Weber decide to sue Hembree.

A smaller number sat behind Hembree, who wore a black sport coat, white shirt, tie and close-cropped hair. His family and friends wore blue ribbons prepared by his girlfriend to show their love and support, they said.

Mrs. Weber was first to take the stand. With sometimes teary eyes, she said she recalled little of what happened immediately preceding the crash.

"We were just driving along," she said. "I didn't see anything happen."

After the crash, she said, she fell in and out of consciousness. At one point, she woke up disoriented.

"My dress was all full of grass," she said. "It looked like raindrops."

Paramedics, then doctors, fought for more than an hour to save her husband, though there was little they could have done, said Janet Pillow, a forensic pathologist formerly with the district medical examiner's office. His aorta, the main artery leading from the heart, was severed.

Jurors heard from a procession of teenagers and young adults. They said as many as 60 to 70 people spent time that Sunday at the mud hole on Canal Drive, a popular hangout for young people before the Citrus County Sheriff's Office shut it down following the crash.

They said Hembree and friends left for the hangout early that Sunday afternoon, toting a bottle of tequila, which they would pass back and forth duringthe ensuing hours. They also drank beer.

"I saw him drinking throughout the day," said 22-year-old Glenn Higginbotham, who was riding in the back of the Jeep at the time of the crash. Danielle Heath, whose 15-year-old sister, Crystal Heath, also caught a ride home in the Jeep, testified she saw Hembree at the mud hole with several other youths, passing a bottle around. "They could barely walk," she said. "They were stumbling."

Each of the people in the Jeep during the crash said they didn't see what led to the collision. Hembree says he was not impaired at the time of the wreck. His Brooksville attorney, Chip Harp, on Tuesday repeatedly questioned the validity of his client's blood sample, given how late it was taken after the crash. Then he let his client testify, keeping the questions narrow enough so that he could not be forced to admit an earlier DUI conviction.

Hembree said he took the stand to correct the official version of what happened.

"That's the only reason I took the stand," he said. "I'm sorry the man died. I live with it every night."

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