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Defense to begin its case in Bennett trial

Cumming man’s boat companion expected to testify

POSTED: November 9, 2013 11:27 p.m.

The defense is set to begin its presentation of evidence Monday in the trial of Paul J. Bennett in Hall County Superior Court.

The Cumming resident is accused of causing a Lake Lanier collision that killed two Buford boys last year.

Bennett, 45, is charged with eight counts of homicide by vessel, failure to render aid, reckless operation of a vessel and boating under the influence in the June 18, 2012, incident. Bennett’s fishing boat struck the front of a pontoon with 13 people on board, killing Jake Prince, 9, and Griffin Prince, 13. Dive teams found Griffin’s body after a nine-day search.

Pending any rebuttal witnesses, the state has finished presenting its evidence.

Thus far, seven eyewitnesses to the accident have testified, all of whom were on board the Avalon pontoon boat. The state also admitted into evidence testimony from three first responders: two Department of Natural Resources rangers and a nearby fisherman, Phil Johnson.

Johnson testified that he heard screaming and directed his fishing vessel to the scene. He said he first spoke with Bennett, who was in the lake and directed him to help the pontoon. Johnson attempted CPR on Jake Prince.

“In making the assessment, it was just that the injuries that had been sustained were beyond what I was capable of helping,” Johnson said, of Prince’s traumatic head and neck injuries. “At that point, CPR was not going to be beneficial.”

It is anticipated that the jury will hear from Amy Lynn Harris, who was aboard Bennett’s Sea Fox boat on the night in question.

Harris’ testimony could go directly toward countering the prosecution’s claim that Bennett was evading law enforcement when he left the scene some time after the collision. The defense has said Bennett left the scene when Harris experienced a diabetic emergency and needed food or drink to increase her blood sugar.

In laying the foundation of their case, the state has also admitted into evidence the results of Bennett’s breath and blood tests to determine his alcohol level that night.

Bennett said in recorded interviews that he drank two glasses of wine at dinner and a tall mixed drink, which he did not finish, at a nearby tavern.

He said that after the accident, he took two “swigs” of whiskey and Coke.

Forensic toxicologist Elizabeth Fisher, with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said she used a tool called the Widmark formula to estimate Bennett’s blood alcohol level at the time of the accident. She estimated a range of 0.165 to 0.185, more than 1« times the then-legal limit for boating.

Barry Zimmerman, Bennett’s lead counsel, is expected to admit evidence from a toxicology expert to question the legitimacy of Fisher’s findings.

In a pretrial motion made by the defense, one expert said there was debate in the scientific community as to the validity of using such a technique, called “retrograde extrapolation,” to determine the range of a person’s past blood-alcohol content based on some clues and some assumptions.

The defense is also expected to admit testimony from an expert who reconstructed the accident. The state admitted the findings of the DNR reconstruction team, led by Cpl. Shawn Elmore. His investigation determined Bennett had caused the accident, with an unexplained right turn about 1,000 feet before the collision, altering what should have been a starboard-to-starboard passing.

“They both were required to take action, but it was my determination that the defendant should have remained on course,” Elmore said Friday.

Zimmerman has not yet announced to Judge Kathlene Gosselin whether Bennett himself will testify.


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