Watching his career wash away with the oil bubbling from the impaled Exxon Valdez, Captain Joseph Hazelwood may have gone down to his cabin for a few solitary drinks before Coast Guard investigators arrived at the grounded tanker, his attorney speculated in closing arguments Tuesday.
Defense attorney Dick Madson offered the theory to try to explain one of the riddles of the tanker disaster: How a blood test taken 11 hours after the grounding and 14 hours after witnesses can put the last drink in Hazelwood's hand showed him with a bloodalcohol concentration of .061.
State prosecutors say the answer is simple: Hazelwood had a .061 blood alcohol level at 10:30 a.m. because he was far drunker than that when his ship slammed into Bligh Reef the night before.
Jurors took the evidence and testimony presented in some seven weeks of trial into deliberations at about 4:15 p.m. They recessed for the day a few minutes later.
Madson reminded jurors that, after shutting down the ship's engines about two hours after the grounding, Hazelwood went below to his cabin, alone. He tried to put them in Hazelwood's shoes that night.
"There's nowhere to go. You're sitting there, just waiting, and you know the end has come. Your career is over. The state says there's no evidence of drinking (then). That's true. No direct evidence. But you can infer. Because . . . one way of explaining it is having something to drink in between times."
A solitary drinking session after the grounding would both explain the .061 blood test results and undercut prosecution expert Richard Prouty's calculation that Hazelwood would have had to be drunk at the time the tanker hit the reef.
Drinking on board violates federal regulations and is considered a firing offense by Exxon, according to testimony at the trial. But Judge Karl Johnstone told jurors that Hazelwood can't be considered to be "operating a watercraft" under state law after the engines on the tanker were shut down.
Assistant District Attorney Brent Cole told the jury Hazelwood's intoxication is confirmed by a series of bad decisions that eventually put his tanker on Bligh Reef.
Madson conceded that Hazelwood had a few drinks, maybe three. But he repeatedly stressed that even prosecution witnesses testified that Hazelwood did not appear drunk, and showed jurors a photograph of the twostory gangway Hazelwood had to climb to board his ship.
"This is the toughest sobriety test you're ever going to see," Madson said.
The two attorneys presented distinct styles and faces to the panel of six men and six women.
Cole, young and flinty and relentlessly serious, said Hazelwood gambled the safety of his crew and cargo that he could drink ashore and still get his tanker to sea safely. He warned jurors to consider carefully the testimony of Hazelwood's crew most of whom are still Exxon Shipping Co. employees who testified differently at trial than they had in previous statements to state or federal investigators.
"It doesn't take a brain surgeon to see what Exxon Corp.'s interest in this matter (is). . . . It's seeing Captain Hazelwood get acquitted," Cole said, reminding jurors that Exxon attorneys were present throughout the trial.
Madson, grizzled, savvy, a master of the sly aside, sought empathy among jurors for a client he characterized as a scapegoat who is unfairly blamed for an accident in which other other individuals and agencies share just as much responsibility.
"This was a maritime accident, ladies and gentlemen," Madson said. "It was a tragic one; no one disputes that. But it was not a crime."
Cole said it was an accident that would not have happened if Hazelwood had not recklessly and negligently abandoned his responsibilities as the captain of a ship loaded with crude oil.
"The state didn't put a vodka in Captain Hazelwood's hands at 2 o'clock and force him to drink it," Cole said.
"The only person who put those drinks in his hand is that person that sits at that table right there," Cole said, pointing to Hazelwood, bearded chin cupped in his hand.
"He's the one who took the risks. He's the one who went into a bar and drank for four hours, at least . . . prior to taking command of that vessel."
The Exxon Valdez ran aground shortly after midnight on March 24, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil. The spill smeared hundreds of miles of shoreline, interrupted fishing seasons and killed thousands of birds and sea mammals.
Hazelwood is charged with a felony, seconddegree criminal mischief, and three misdemeanors, operating a watercraft under the influence of alcohol, reckless endangerment and negligent discharge of oil.
The issues in the case are comparatively simple and straightforward. But they quickly got complicated when attorneys for the state and defense sent experts filing to the witness stand for a rigorous, and frequently dreary, series of technical lectures and explanations of subjects ranging from tanker engineering to gas chromatography to audio tape analysis.
Experts called by prosecutors said Hazelwood tempted fate by leaving the bridge of his ship during a transit through the Valdez Narrows, and going below a second time after putting the ship on autopilot and telling Third Mate Gregory Cousins to complete a risky maneuver to dodge ice floating ahead.
Experts called by the defense said there's only one place in the world where captains are required to be on the bridge transiting the Panama Canal and that Hazelwood had no reason to believe Cousins would be unable to carry out a maneuver that tanker crews routinely executed in Prince William Sound.
"The maneuver was simple, routine, and ordinary," Madson summed up Tuesday. "And he left a check."
The check was a prearranged phone call from Cousins to Hazelwood to assure him the turn had been made. Cousins made the call, but he was wrong about the turn. Minutes later, he was back on the phone to tell Hazelwood the ship was in trouble. During the conversation, the tanker ground into the reef.
Cole said it is likely the grounding occurred because the tanker was still on autopilot, a mode in which the ship would not respond to helmsman Bob Kagan's manual adjustments of the wheel.
But Madson noted that both Kagan and Cousins said the autopilot was turned off moments after Hazelwood went to his cabin, saying he needed to finish some paperwork. Besides, Madson said, lighted signals on the helm console clearly indicate when the autopilot is on.
"You'd have to be a total bimbo not to know it," the attorney said.
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