An Anchorage jury Thursday found Captain Joseph Hazelwood not guilty of drunkenly driving the tanker Exxon Valdez aground on Bligh Reef.
The jury returned a guilty verdict on only one of the four charges against Hazelwood negligent discharge of oil. District Attorney Dwayne McConnell said the charge, a misdemeanor, carries maximum penalties of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
After deliberating for 101|2 hours, jurors acquitted Hazelwood of a felony, seconddegree criminal mischief, and two misdemeanors, operating a water craft under the influence of alcohol and reckless endangerment.
Jurors said they believed Hazelwood's decision to leave the bridge in the hands of Third Mate Gregory Cousins and helmsman Robert Kagan was questionable enough for a finding of negligence, but not recklessness.
Judge Karl Johnstone will sentence Hazelwood on the misdemeanor conviction this afternoon. His attorneys said he plans to appeal.
Hazelwood, who sat stonefaced, chin in hand through most of his eightweek trial, remained lowkey as Johnstone read the notguilty verdicts into the record.
But defense attorney Michael Chalos jubilantly pounded his fist on the table when Johnstone read the first acquittal into the record, and a knot of supporters, including Hazelwood's wife and father, applauded near the back of the courtroom.
Hazelwood smiled broadly. Several minutes later, after the judge polled jurors and they were about to stand up and leave the courtroom, Hazelwood nodded to them and silently mouthed the words "Thank you."
Moments later, surrounded by reporters and wellwishers, Hazelwood deflected most of the questions put to him with "no comment."
What are you going to do next? he was asked.
"I'm going to try to get out of this courtroom," Hazelwood said, smiling.
His father, Joseph O. Hazelwood, a distinguishedlooking former airline pilot, brushed away tears and apologized for being at a loss for words.
"Yes," he said, "I was worried. . . . It's been a pretty rough year.
"I have to call my wife."
"We think it's a great victory, a great victory for Captain Hazelwood," said Chalos, a Hazelwood friend since the two were in a maritime academy together 20 years ago.
"We had faith in the jury system," Chalos said.
Hazelwood was asked if he believes he was a scapegoat in the case, chosen to take heat for the nation's largest oil spill off Coast Guard and state officials, as defense attorney Dick Madson argued to jurors Tuesday.
"No comment," Hazelwood said. Then he added an afterthought.
"I was a defendant."
Later, as Hazelwood and his attorneys stood waiting for an elevator, juror Jeffrey Sage walked up.
"I'm glad to see justice was done," Sage said.
"So am I," said Hazelwood.
Sage's phrasing echoed defense attorney Madson's closing remarks on Tuesday. Madson asked the six men and six women on the jury to return a verdict that would "send out a nice, clear, loud message to the entire world . . . that justice was done here today."
Hazelwood's attorneys hailed the verdicts as "a great vindication" for the 43yearold tanker captain. Madson said the one count Hazelwood was convicted of negligent discharge of oil is the one most vulnerable to an appeal. Madson and Chalos say a state law that grants immunity to people who report oil spills immunizes Hazelwood from criminal charges resulting from the Exxon Valdez grounding.
In Juneau, Alaska Attorney General Doug Bailey claimed state officials are "certainly satisfied" with the single misdemeanor guilty verdict.
McConnell, the Anchorage district attorney, said the state presented the best case it could have.
"We put on more evidence than I ever anticipated we would be able to do. In fact, we did a better job than I ever anticipated we would be able to do," he said.
Assistant Attorney General Brent Cole, tackling the biggest case of his career, was more willing to admit weaknesses in the state's $300,000plus prosecution.
"We knew that of the people we had interviewed nobody would say he was impaired. We felt that the physical evidence was a better determination of that than what people were going to say," he said.
Juror Sage, a Carrs grocery manager whose sister died in a drunken driving accident several years ago, said the state's evidence that Hazelwood was drunk made no sense.
Prosecutors relied on a bloodalcohol expert who used a process called "retrograde extrapolation" to calculate backward to midnight from the .061 result of Hazelwood's 10:30 a.m. blood test. The expert, Richard Prouty, said Hazelwood would have had a blood alcohol count of at least .14 at the time of the grounding. But he also said the blood alcohol concentration at the time of grounding could have been much higher, perhaps as much as .37.
Defense experts said Prouty's backcalculation process is useless after more than a couple of hours. It had never been used to estimate an alcohol concentration 11 hours before a test.
Sage said the Anchorage jury didn't want to be the first to convict a person on such speculative grounds.
"I don't think any juror wanted to stick their neck out that far," Sage said.
"If Captain Hazelwood is an average Joe . . . he's going to be practically dead," Sage said. "He would have had to have 25 to 30 drinks."
At most, witnesses placed five drinks in Hazelwood's hand. But, according to the state's own analysis, Hazelwood would have been dead drunk when the Exxon Valdez put to sea.
"Captain Hazelwood would have had to crawl back to his ship," while witnesses testified he looked sober "and his commands were clear and concise throughout," Sage said.
Jurors were not told that Hazelwood had a history of drunken driving convictions and had spent time at an alcohol rehabilitation clinic. And although the .061 blood alcohol concentration exceeded federal standards for operating a vessel, Hazelwood was tried under Alaska laws, which provide more leeway.
Juror Terrill Smith, an Eagle River hardware store manager, said the jury considered the tradition that a captain is responsible for his ship.
"That caused some difficult times while we were in there," said Smith.
"We considered the fact that Hazelwood was captain of his ship and the actions of his crew. But when it came down to making a verdict, we could not say that because that was not the law," Smith said.
A spokesman for Exxon, which fired Hazelwood days after the grounding, said the company is "pleased that the ordeal of the trial is over for Captain Hazelwood and his family.
"The verdict would seem to confirm the view that the grounding of the Exxon Valdez was an accident," said company spokesman Fred Davis.
Exxon and its subsidiary, Exxon Shipping Co., were charged in a federal indictment midway through the Hazelwood trial. The company is also the defendant in hundreds of civil lawsuits spawned by the grounding.
Gov. Steve Cowper was flying over Prince William Sound when he learned of the verdict. In a prepared statement issued Thursday night, Cowper commended state prosecutors for "a fine job." "They had to work with some fairly marginal evidence," Cowper said in the statement.
Tom Russo, the third attorney on Hazelwood's defense team, said marginal was too strong a word to describe the state's case.
"Why was this man charged with this crime to start with?" Russo asked.
"Everybody has tried to focus attention on the captain. Perhaps people should start to look now beyond this case" to other people and agencies responsible for tanker traffic in Prince William Sound.
Sage pointed the finger at the Coast Guard, which defense attorneys said spent $70 million to build a tanker traffic system that failed to keep the Exxon Valdez away from Bligh Reef.
"Seventy million bucks," Sage repeated. "Nobody got their money's worth on that one. What did they spend it on?"
"In fact, if you read the VTS (vessel traffic system) manual, they're there to prevent collisions and groundings. They obviously didn't do their job."
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