A judge says he expects to rule today whether the former skipper of the Exxon Valdez should stand trial on criminal charges for the nation's worst oil spill.
Superior Court Judge Karl Johnstone listened to final arguments Monday by attorneys for Hazelwood and the state. For the past two weeks, they've argued over whether three misdemeanors and three felonies filed against Hazelwood should go to trial.
Hazelwood's attorneys insist he cannot be prosecuted because state and federal laws provide immunity to people who report oil spills. The state counters that the spill would have been discovered anyway and there is plenty of other evidence on which to convict Hazelwood.
"We are breaking new ground," in a sensitive area, said Bob Linton, an assistant district attorney and the lead prosecutor in the case, asking the judge to carve out an exception to the immunity clauses.
Hazelwood would have been required to report the tanker's grounding, anyway, and that report would have sparked the same sort of investigation, Linton said.
"I would submit that the prosecutor is on thin ice and he's asking you to join him out there," Richard Friedman, one of Hazelwood's lawyers, told the judge.
"Contract murderers, drug dealers, and embezzlers," are given immunity across the country in hundreds of cases every day because a prosecutor decided "we'd rather have your information because the good it will do is more important than putting you in jail," Friedman said..
"Congress conferred immunity," he said. "It's not in this court's province to tinker with the statute, to carve out an exception."
Under questioning by Johnstone, Friedman conceded that if Hazelwood had first reported his tanker aground and then five minutes later reported an oil spill, the two reports might have been considered separate. But to separate two parts of the same sentence flies in the face of common sense, the defense lawyer said.
The 987foot Exxon Valdez slammed into Bligh Reef on March 24, dumping nearly 11 million gallons of Prudhoe Bay crude into Prince William Sound.
Both sides agreed that under the inevitable discovery theory the jury cannot hear any evidence which was gathered as a result of Hazelwood's report.
Linton said Coast Guard investigators probably would not have smelled alcohol on Hazelwood's breath if they'd arrived at the ship later than they did. Therefore, he agreed, that evidence cannot be used at trial.
But Linton said tests showing Hazelwood had blood alcohol level higher than that allowed tanker captains under Coast Guard regulations should be presented to a jury because they were taken later that morning, and would have been taken in any routine investigation of a grounded ship.
"Without the smell of alcohol, your honor, the entire state's case falls," Friedman countered.
He said state troopers may never have investigated the incident if no one had smelled alcohol on the captain's breath. And no one would have smelled alcohol if Hazelwood had not reported the spill, he said.
"There's no evidence that any of the crew members would have talked, would have spoken to investigators had their captain remained silent," Friedman said.
Prosecutors erected a procedural screen to keep information which might not have been otherwise available away from a "clean team" of prosecutors who presented evidence to the grand jury.
Linton was the gatekeeper. He determined what information was given to the other prosecutors.
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