The Gainesville Times is following a Boating Under the Influence trial taking place in Hall County Superior Court this week. The case involves a boating collision and the deaths of two children, Jake Prince, age 13 and Griffin Prince, age 9. The accident that is the subject of the trial happened late one evening between a pontoon boat and a fishing boat.
While many of the facts that took place on the night of June 18th, 2012 are in dispute, some are not. It is clear that Paul J. Bennett, 45, was operating a fishing boat with passenger Amy Lynn Harris on their way back to Mr. Bennett's houseboat after dinner and after having had drinks at Big Creek Tavern on Lake Lanier. The night was very dark and a collision occurred between Mr. Bennett's boat and a pontoon boat being operated by the Princes' and three other families (13 people in all). One of the Prince boys, Jake, was thrown into the water from the collision. His body was recovered approximately 10 days later by search and rescue divers. The body of his younger brother Griffin was found on the boat, either where he died or after being recovered by family members. Two other children, along with the mother of the Prince boys were injured in the wreck with non-life threatening injuries, for which they were transported to Northeast Georgia Medical Center.
Aside from that, most of the facts are still being questioned. Authorities charged Mr. Bennett with BUI, or Boating Under the Influence. The legal limit for boating at the time of this incident, as opposed to driving, was .10, a fact Governor Nathan Deal brought to light and vowed to change after the accident. That change in the law did take place, leaving the current limit .08. This case must be prosecuted under the law in existence at the time.
In question is when Mr. Bennett actually consumed alcohol during the course of the evening leading up to the incident, as well as when the actual blood draw was taken. The blood results showed that Mr. Bennett's blood alcohol content, or BAC was .03, but one State's expert testified that it could have been as high as a .165 to a .185, well above the legal limit, at the time of the actual incident as opposed to when the blood was drawn, later at the station.
Another set of facts that are in doubt relate to the actions of Mr. Bennett and Ms. Harris after the accident. Ms. Harris indicated in testimony that they called 911 from the scene, giving as much information as possible before she was hung up on by the 911 operator due to other calls coming in regarding the same incident.
The District Attorney, Lee Darragh asked Ms. Harris why she did not inform the 911 operator that she had been involved in the accident.
Mr. Bennett's attorney later pointed out after playing the recording of the 911 call that Ms. Harris had indeed indicated that she was in the accident and that dispatch had her phone number.
"We've got your number, we're getting other calls and have to hang up," the dispatcher said before ending the call.
Continuing his line of questioning, Mr. Darragh grilled Ms. Harris on the actions she and Mr. Bennett took that evening.
We've never been in this situation," Harris said. "You don't know what to do until after it happens."
"I want to clarify something -" Harris continued during cross examination.
"Of course, you always do," Darragh commented.
Darragh said Harris "had an explanation for just about everything," asking her at one point about why she answered questions with an explanation.
Of the many grounds for sustaining the ensuing objection, Judge Katherine Gosselin chose "argumentative" as the one she relied on.
It was held by the prosecution that Mr. Bennett and Ms. Harris fled the scene, returning to Mr. Bennett's houseboat and turning off the lights in a lame attempt to apparently hide from authorities.
The defense pointed out that Mr. Bennett actually entered the water to help search for survivors, but returned to the boat when Ms. Harris began displaying symptoms of severe diabetic emergency.
Ms. Harris testified that "I sweat; I shake; I become dizzy. I had it all - I felt like I was going to pass out."
Officers later questioned the idea that Ms. Harris had diabetes at all, a fact which Mr. Darragh seemed to accept, but did attempt to deny she was having any sort of episode.
Mr. Darragh asked why she didn't drink an energy drink found on Bennett's boat.
She replied that she didn't know the drink was there and that the caffeine would have sent her 'into a tail spin, anyway."
He countered with asking her why then did she drink Coke back at Bennett's houseboat. She replied that she drinks caffeine-free Coke.
There is no getting around the fact that the events that took place on the night of June 18th, 2012 were tragic. The lives of two young boys were ended prematurely, and the lives of their family members, as well as Mr. Bennett and Ms. Harris will forever be altered.
Whether the State can prove its case however, is another matter.
Mr. Bennett was charged with 8 counts of homicide by vehicle. Though we are not in possession of the actual charging document, 8 counts of homicide by vehicle in an incident that resulted in two deaths indicates that 2 of the counts would be based on the underlying BUI (Boating Under the Influence) charge, 2 based on the underlying Reckless Boating charge, 2 on the Failure to Render Aid charge and 2 misdemeanor or Homicide by Vehicle in the Second Degree charges.The Georgia Code relating to boating underwent considerable revisions in 2013. As mentioned previously, this case must be prosecuted under the laws in existence at the time of the incident however. One cannot be held accountable for things that haven't yet become illegal.
In 2010 (the last revision of the code before this case), the Georgia Code defined Homicide by Vessel as follows:
2010 Georgia Code
O.C.G.A. 52-7-12.2 (2010)
52-7-12.2. Homicide by vessel
(a) Any person who, without malice aforethought, causes the death of another person through the violation of subsection (j) of Code Section 52-7-8.2 (speeding), Code Section 52-7-12 (BUI) or 52-7-12.1 (Reckless), subsection (b) of Code Section 52-7-13 (illegal operation in a boating safety zone), or subsection (c) of Code Section 52-7-25 (failure to obey officer) commits the offense of homicide by vessel in the first degree. A person convicted under this subsection shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than three years nor more than 15 years.
(b) Any operator of a vessel who, without malice aforethought, causes a collision or accident which causes the death of another person and leaves the scene of the collision or accident in violation of subsection (a) of Code Section 52-7-14 commits the offense of homicide by vessel in the first degree and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than three years nor more than 15 years.
(c) Any person who causes the death of another person, without an intention to do so, by violating any provision of this title other than subsection (j) of Code Section 52-7-8.2, Code Section 52-7-12 or 52-7-12.1, subsection (b) of Code Section 52-7-13, subsection (a) of Code Section 52-7-14, or subsection (c) of Code Section 52-7-25 commits the offense of homicide by vessel in the second degree when such violation is the cause of said death. A person convicted under this subsection shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be punished as provided in Code Section 17-10-3.
The Code in force relating to BUI (in pertinent part) was as follows:
O.C.G.A. 52-7-12 (2010)52-7-12. Operation of watercraft while under influence of alcohol or drugs; legal drug use not exempted; blood and other chemical tests; test refusal; owner's liability for allowing another to operate while intoxicated; civil and criminal actions; child endangerment
(a) No person shall operate, navigate, steer, or drive any moving vessel, or be in actual physical control of any moving vessel, nor shall any person manipulate any moving water skis, moving aquaplane, moving surfboard, or similar moving device while:
(1) Under the influence of alcohol to the extent that it is less safe for the person to operate, navigate, steer, drive, manipulate, or be in actual physical control of a moving vessel, moving water skis, moving aquaplane, moving surfboard, or similar moving device;
(2) Under the influence of any drug to the extent that it is less safe for the person to operate, navigate, steer, drive, manipulate, or be in actual physical control of a moving vessel, moving water skis, moving aquaplane, moving surfboard, or similar moving device;
(3) Under the combined influence of alcohol and any drug to the extent that it is less safe for the person to operate, navigate, steer, drive, manipulate, or be in actual physical control of a moving vessel, moving water skis, moving aquaplane, moving surfboard, or similar moving device;
(4) The person's alcohol concentration is 0.10 grams or more at any time within three hours after such operating, navigating, steering, driving, manipulating, or being in actual physical control of a moving vessel, moving water skis, moving aquaplane, moving surfboard, or similar moving device from alcohol consumed before such operating, navigating, steering, driving, manipulating, or being in actual physical control ended; ...
Reckless Boating was defined as:
O.C.G.A. 52-7-12.1 (2010) 52-7-12.1. Reckless operation of vessel or other water device
Any person who operates any vessel or manipulates any water skis, aquaplane, surfboard, tube, or similar device in reckless disregard for the safety of persons or property commits the offense of reckless operation of a vessel or other water device.
Testimony in this case continues throughout this week. Once each side has presented their case the evidence will go to the jury to decide the guilt or innocence of Mr. Bennett. It remains to be seen whether he will testify or simply rely on his defense counsel to take apart the State's case. In any event, we will keep you posted as to the outcome of the jury's deliberations.
If you have been cited with a BUI or Homicide by Vessel charge in Hall County or anywhere in North Georgia, you will need experienced legal representation immediately. Richard S. Lawson has almost 20 years of experience in handling BUI, DUI and other traffic-related cases. He is the top ranked AVVO DUI Defense attorney in North Georgia and Metro Atlanta.
Contact his office today at (404) 816-4440 to schedule your free consultation, or use the Contact form on this site to request further information.