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Jury resumes deliberations today in boat deaths trial

Cumming man faces multiple charges in fatal crash that killed 2 brothers in 2012

POSTED: November 13, 2013 7:30 p.m.

A jury will reconvene this morning to continue deliberating in the trial of Paul J. Bennett, a boater accused in the deaths of two Buford boys on Lake Lanier.

Bennett, 45, has been in Hall County Superior Court in Gainesville since Nov. 4 to stand trial on homicide charges in the June 18, 2012, incident, where his fishing boat collided with a pontoon carrying 13 people — four adults and nine children. Jake Prince, 9, and Griffin Prince, 13, were killed on impact.

Bennett faces charges of eight counts of homicide by vessel, failure to render aid, reckless operation of a vessel and boating under the influence.

Closing arguments concluded Wednesday afternoon, and the jury deliberated until about 5:15 p.m.

The prosecution has argued that Bennett was boating impaired, did not have proper lighting on his Sea Fox and evaded law enforcement in the aftermath of the crash. State lawmakers passed the “Jake and Griffin Prince BUI Law,” which lowered the legal alcohol limit for boaters in Georgia to 0.08 from 0.10, in response to the incident.

The defense counters that Bennett’s arrest and breath and blood testing were improperly handled, that he stayed on the scene for a lengthy period of time to help and only returned to his houseboat when his companion had a diabetic emergency.

“There’s no way that anyone can look at this as anything other than a tragedy, and there’s no way that anyone can look at this as anything other than an accident,” Bennett’s lead attorney Barry Zimmerman said at the start of his closing arguments.

Zimmerman asked the jury to consider the testimony of defense witness and boating collision expert Phil Odom, who placed the fault on both Bennett and Michael Prince, the boys’ father and pontoon boat operator.

“There’s distraction here. Neither person was paying attention,” Zimmerman said. “They had a collision, but it’s not a crime.”

District Attorney Lee Darragh, who led the state’s prosecution, said in his closing that Prince could not have seen Bennett’s boat.

“He came at such a speed and such a path that Michael Prince could not have seen him,” Darragh said.

Odom’s testimony, Darragh said, was not trustworthy because he was paid to appear in court by the defense. Darragh asked jurors to instead consider the investigation of Cpl. Shawn Elmore with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, who concluded that Bennett was at fault.

Zimmerman said he found Elmore’s investigation to be troublesome, calling it a “justification” rather than “investigation.”

“The final straw in order to justify his decision — he used other laws,” Zimmerman said.

Elmore said both of the boats were stand-on vessels, and therefore should have maintained course and passed on the left — starboard to starboard.

“There’s no such thing as two stand-on boats,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said currently adopted boating rules mandated that Bennett was the stand-on vessel, and Prince the give-way vessel.

Darragh said Odom’s conclusions about the boat operators’ actions failed to consider one of the key components of criminality — Bennett’s alleged alcohol impairment.

“I submit to you that this defendant was distracted because he was inebriated,” Darragh said.

“Mr. Bennett said, ‘I don’t drink when I’m on the lake.’ No — but you drink before you go on the lake.”

Darragh said that throughout the incident and the aftermath, Bennett has been molding his drinking to be “as extensive as he wants it to be.”

“This has been a defense of deception; defense of desperation,” Darragh added.

Zimmerman was matter-of-fact regarding Bennett’s alleged drinking after the incident.

“Should he have drank after the accident? Well, I don’t know. But he did,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman took great issue with Bennett’s estimated blood alcohol content at the time of the incident, based on a breath test and blood test. A Georgia Bureau of Investigation toxicologist said her calculation, based on a process called retrograde extrapolation, placed it between 0.16 and 0.185.

Darragh told the jurors not to believe Amy Lynn Harris, who was on the boat with Bennett and testified he was not impaired, arguing that she was not reliable, turning her words against her.

“Ms. Harris said she doesn’t pay attention to his drinking — and he doesn’t pay attention either, and decides he’s well enough to proceed,” Darragh said.

Zimmerman said nearly all of the witnesses — defense and state — had an interest in the outcome of the case, making the testimony of bystanders all the more crucial to consider.

“I find the fishermen to be very interesting,” Zimmerman said, of first responder Phil Johnson and a fellow bass fisherman he was boating with. “Everyone has an interest in this case except the fishermen.”

Zimmerman said Johnson pointed out multiple times to law enforcement where Bennett’s boat was, but that officers did not make an immediate attempt to reach him.

Darragh said Bennett was eluding law enforcement to avoid consequences, but asked the jury to hold Bennett accountable for the deaths of the two boys.

“Because he was in that condition, he caused the death of these two young boys,” Darragh said.

“This is no legal accident. This is a drunken boating collision caused by Paul Bennett.”

Zimmerman said his client has been unjustly targeted and accused since before he even spoke to law enforcement, and asked the jurors not to make the same error in judgment, nor let the tragic aspect of the case cloud their perception.

“I ask you to not let your sorrow and compassion blur your vision of this case,” he said, and quoted Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor: “It is not the heart that compels conclusions in cases, it is the law.”


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