Alaskans probably wish a federal law granting immunity to oil spillers who turn themselves in didn't apply to major disasters like the Exxon Valdez, but it does and that means Capt. Joe Hazelwood cannot be prosecuted, a lawyer for the notorious skipper argued Tuesday before the Alaska Supreme Court. The state wants the Supreme Court to reinstate Hazelwood's conviction for negligent discharge of oil in connection with the 1989 grounding that dumped 11 million gallons of North Slope crude into Prince William Sound. The state Court of Appeals threw out the conviction in July, citing the immunity statute.
A federal law, designed to encourage self-reporting of toxic spills, says notification of a spill, "or information obtained by the exploitation of such notification . . . shall not be used against any such person in any criminal case."
Prosecution efforts to carve out a Hazelwood exception to the clear meaning of the law "are not only legally wrong, they're morally offensive," Anchorage attorney Rick Friedman told the justices.
Hazelwood, who was below decks when the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989, radioed the Coast Guard at 12:07 a.m. that his ship was "hard aground" and "leaking some oil."
In 1990, prosecutors convinced a trial court judge that Hazelwood was not immune because the huge spill would have been discovered without his report. In addition, all the evidence presented to the jury that convicted him was obtained independently of his initial spill notification, Assistant Attorney General Cynthia Hora said.
The immunity law "was not intended to allow a person to escape any possibility of prosecution," Hora argued.
Four of the five justices questioned the two lawyers during the hearing, held Tuesday afternoon in the fifth-floor Supreme Court chamber. Several questioned the effect on spillers if the immunity protection were to be narrowed, as the state suggests.
Wouldn't the state's interpretation encourage spillers "to keep their mouths shut and run for it?" asked Justice Edmond Burke. And Justice Jay Rabinowitz stated flatly that adoption of the state's position "would defeat the purpose of the law."
The misdemeanor negligence charge is the only criminal count hanging over Hazelwood nearly four years after the big spill. The 1990 jury acquitted him of all other charges, including an allegation that he was drunk while in command of the vessel.
Tom Russo, a New York attorney also representing the captain, said his client is no longer teaching at a maritime school and "is looking for a job." Hazelwood's master's license has been restored and "he still wants to go back to sea," Russo said.
The court took the case under advisement.
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