Jurors were given a vivid look in court on Thursday at Paul J. Bennett on the night he was arrested in connection with allegedly causing a collision on Lake Lanier that killed two boys.
Bennett, 45, of Cumming, 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, collision. Bennett’s fishing boat struck the front of a pontoon with 13 people on board, killing Jake Prince, 9, and Griffin Prince, 13.
Almost two hours of interview footage with Bennett were played in Hall County Superior Court, from his initial interview on Lake Lanier to moments before he was administered a breath test that registered a blood alcohol level of 0.14.
Bennett described the collision to DNR Ranger Mark Stephens, who was the first law enforcement officer to respond to the scene of the accident, around 1:30 a.m. after Stephens encountered Bennett and his friend Amy Harris on his house boat.
“That boat came out of nowhere. It just shot straight in front of us,” Bennett said.
Both parents of the Prince boys, Michael and Tara Prince, and family friends who were on the boat have testified the pontoon was moving slowly, at around 10 to 11 miles per hour.
Bennett described jumping in the water with a flotation cushion after the collision, unsure what to do.
“I didn’t hit and run; I jumped in the water. I didn’t know what to do. There were two kids. There was panic, total panic — chaos. I didn’t know what to do,” he said.
After a series of sobriety exercises including a horizontal gaze nystagmus test, which measures an involuntary eye jerk caused by alcohol and other depressants, Stephens placed Bennett under arrest. Bennett’s attorney contends the HGN test was improperly administered.
“I went to the bank trying to get the police, and I came back here and (the other boaters) were gone,” Bennett said, as he was transported to the DNR’s Aqualand Marina by Stephens, who maintained a friendly rapport with Bennett throughout their interaction.
At the marina, Bennett said he had discussed low-visibility issues with a friend before.
“We were just having this conversation the other night, ‘How do people not see us?’” he said. “There are areas in the lake, shadows cast by the trees, they came out of an area like that and I didn’t see them.”
Bennett’s attorney, Barry Zimmerman, concluded his cross-examination of Stephens after about two hours of questioning. He pointed out statements Stephens had made prior to any contact with Bennett.
“That son of a b**** was drunk when he hit him. Gah, I forgot I’m on camera,” Stephens said in the recording, in the minutes when he was first on the scene.
“First of all, let me apologize to the jury, people in the court and the judge for that,” Stephens said of the remark. “That’s not how DNR does business; that’s not how I do business. That was a different night. It shook me up a little bit.”
Stephens said he rationalized the statement based on his experience with similar incidents.
“A lot of times, I’ll work incidents where people have been drinking and they leave the scene — usually,” Stephens said.
The HGN test wasn’t the only portion of the tests Zimmerman asserted was improper. He asked Stephens why he didn’t administer a more standard field sobriety test on land.
“The main reason I didn’t do that is safety,” Stephens said.
Stephens said ultimately he made the determination that Bennett was impaired based on several factors, which he listed.
“Leaving the scene of the incident, the fact that he did consume alcohol prior to the incident, my tests and exercises and the results of all those tests and exercises, I concluded he was under the influence,” Stephens said.
“You are trying, are you not, to determine that Mr. Bennett was impaired due to consumption of alcohol that he consumed either prior to or during the operation of that vessel, correct?” Zimmerman asked.
“Yes, prior to,” Stephens said.
“How can you make that determination when he’s drank a couple of swigs of Crown and Coke after the accident?” Zimmerman asked.
“Well, a couple swigs is a couple swigs. I’m still going to do the tests and the exercises,” Stephens said.
Zimmerman made a point of noting a discrepancy over what time Bennett’s blood was drawn, after being transported to the Hall County Jail. The state said the warrant to draw blood from Bennett was acquired around 8 a.m., and the blood was drawn at about 9:30 a.m.
Paperwork reads that the blood was drawn around 5:30 a.m. Stephens, who wrote the report, said he made a mistake in the paperwork. Stephens did not record his interaction with Bennett at the jail because his lapel camera ran out of memory, he said.
When the jury was not present, Zimmerman expressed outrage to Judge Kathlene Gosselin at the lack of corroboration of the time of the drawing of blood.
“The best evidence would be, let me see your chain of custody. But they’re not going to produce the chain of custody,” Zimmerman said. “Why? Do they have something to hide?”
Zimmerman seemed to assert his own theory on the discrepancy in a pointed question to Stephens.
“And in fact, what really happened, was that blood was drawn at 5:30 in the morning, and then later your major said go get a search warrant just to cover and be absolutely safe, right?” he said.
“No, absolutely not,” Stephens replied.
The difference in time would affect the retrograde extrapolation, or calculation from a Georgia Bureau of Investigation expert on Bennett’s blood-alcohol content at the time of the accident, a figure Zimmerman said in opening statements is based on “junk science.”
The state also called to the stand law enforcement officers from the GBI and DNR who investigated the accident more thoroughly after the night of impact.
Cpl. Shawn Elmore with DNR led the incident reconstruction team. Several pictures that depicted the extensive damage to the pontoon boat, an Avalon, were entered into evidence.
“Our determination, through the entire thing, is the angle and area the Sea Fox went through, into, and over top of the Avalon,” Elmore said, while being questioned by prosecutor Amber Sowers, pointing to the damage depicted in a series of photographs.
Elmore said the DNR investigation also uncovered seven empty beer bottles on the boat.
Zimmerman said in opening statements the crash reconstruction was “physically impossible,” and that the empty beers were drunk by others, left on the boat from the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
Presentation of evidence from the state continues this morning. The trial is expected to run through this week and the beginning of next week, attorneys said.