Evidence from the state concluded Friday evening in the criminal trial of Paul J. Bennett, who is accused of causing a boating accident that killed two boys in 2012.
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. Dive teams found Griffin’s body after nine days of searching.
Presentation of evidence from the defense will begin Monday. The trial is expected to conclude next week, attorneys said.
Friday’s final testimony in Hall County Superior Court was from the man who led that search, Sgt. Kelley Edwards of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, his voice cracking as he described a moment of both profound relief and sadness.
“It was plain as day – you could see that it was him,” he said, when sonar equipment found Griffin at the depths of Lake Lanier. “120 feet. 44 degrees. If you can imagine the darkest place you’ve ever been and the coldest you’ve ever been, and put 100 plus feet of water in between you and what you can breathe, that’s where you’re at.”
In the trial, which began Monday, attorneys have examined evidence that the prosecution contends is enough to prove Bennett’s reckless, impaired boating caused the boys’ deaths.
The defense says that while the collision was a tragic outcome, it was not the result of criminal actions on Bennett’s part.
Special prosecutor Amber Sowers from the Solicitor’s Office in Hall County began the day by concluding her direct examination of Cpl. Shawn Elmore, who led the Georgia Department of Natural Resource’s reconstruction of the accident.
Elmore testified that after his interviews, examination of physical evidence and re-enactment of the collision path, he concluded Bennett caused the accident.
“It should have been a passing situation — starboard to starboard,” he said.
Instead, he said, Bennett’s boat made an “unexplainable right turn” about 1,000 feet from the Avalon pontoon boat.
Elmore summarized his findings and understanding of the timeline.
“He (Bennett) altered his course and drove his 2002 Sea Fox into the front starboard bow of the 2011 Avalon,” Elmore said. “Upon his impact with the Avalon, we know from DNA evidence that Griffin Prince was struck by the port side of the rub rail, causing his injuries. Jake Prince was also impacted by the vessel and died.
“The vessel traveled over the Avalon, making contact with the flag pole, 7« feet above the deck of the boat,” Elmore sad. “The defendant stayed in the area for a while, and for some unknown reason, turned his GPS off and went back to his houseboat to go to bed because he had to go to work the next day.”
Bennett’s attorney Barry Zimmerman contends that Michael Prince, who operated the Avalon pontoon, should have given the right of way to Bennett’s boat, which he says was properly lighted.
Zimmerman questioned if Elmore’s knowledge of circumstances in the incident, including the death of the children or Bennett’s arrest for BUI, had influenced his investigative process. Elmore denied that, although he admitted the extraordinary situation prompted some changes in his investigation.
“Is it your normal investigative manner to interview people all at one time?” Zimmerman asked of an interview with the pontoon’s occupants after the incident.
“No, sir, normally it’s not,” he said, later adding, “That’s the way I did it that day.”
Zimmerman questioned if Elmore knew whether the Princes’ boat could have been using headlight-beam lights, which would blind the navigation lights.
“I do not, but I believe your client should have seen them if they had been on,” he said.
“They both were required to take action, but it was my determination that the defendant should have remained on course,” Elmore said under cross examination.
The state also admitted into evidence findings from a Georgia Bureau of Investigation forensic toxicologist, Elizabeth Fisher.
The state said Fisher, using a sample of Bennett’s blood taken around 9 a.m. the day after the incident, performed a calculation that estimated his blood-alcohol content to measure between 0.165 and 0.185 at the time of the collision – more than 1« times the then-legal limit to operate a boat.
Zimmerman disputes the scientific reliability of the measure, describing it as “assumptions based on assumptions” in a pretrial motion.
In his cross-examination of Fisher, he asked if the measure was anything more than “guesswork.”
“I think it’s calculated estimations I made based on information I was provided,” Fisher said.
Zimmerman is expected to admit testimony from individuals, including his own expert who reconstructed the accident and the witness account of Bennett’s boating companion on the night in question.