Thursday, October 16, 2014

Report On The Trial

New Bern, NC

Lee Bettis, former mayor of New Bern: guilty of all charges.  He was sentenced to 90 days in jail for the DWI charge and 12 months of supervised probation for the two counts of child abuse. But he was not punished for the reckless driving charge.  That was the result of the three day long trial.

I sat through every minute of it.  I learned a lot.  I was very impressed by the competency of the prosecutors, the defense lawyers and the judge.  I researched Mr. Bettis on the Internet, and I find him to be a very interesting and very accomplished man.  This verdict will have a devastating effect on Bettis' career and family.  I'm sad for their sake.

The charges were DUI, reckless driving, and child abuse (for having 2 kids in the car).  The local scuttlebutt was that the New Bern establishment was out to get Mr. Bettis.  He was a New York lawyer who moved to New Bern and took on the entrenched interests.  It is easy to believe that they wanted to get them.

The Trial
It started with the testimony of three women who saw Bettis' reckless driving on 5/6/2013.   Tapes of 911 calls reinforced what they said.  His driving was certainly reckless.  He endangered lots of people, including his kids.  It was so bad, that some explanation other than bad driving was imperative.

From the first day, there was a great deal of legal wrangling about HGT and especially VGT (vertical gaze nystagmus) tests for influence.  Those tests have to do with fluttering of the eyes.  Not all states allow them.  They are very effective but very controversial. The admissibility of VGT evidence and the qualifications of police officer Rodgers to administer the test and interpret the result were challenged.  At first the judge ruled to exclude it, but on the second day after more argument, he changed his mind.   The lawyers were prescient. As it turned out, the VGT test (in my opinion) was the one and only conclusive piece of evidence in my mind.   Without the VGT, I would have voted not guilty.  With the VGT, I would have voted guilty.

You see, Bettis blew 0.00 on the breathalyzer.  No alcohol.  His blood test showed the presence of Xanax (a tranquilizer), but it did not show how much was in his blood. He could have taken  Xanax a week before the incident and still have it show up in the blood test.   But it doesn't matter for the VGT test.    The law says 1) That VGT is either present or not present.  2) That if it is present, the only possible cause is a high dose of some substance.  Rogers said VGT was present, so the state did not have to prove what he actually took, or how much or when he took it.  All that doesn't matter.

When the prosecution rested, I looked forward to the defense.  I felt that the state's evidence was very thin.  I wanted the defense to present an alternative theory of why Bettis drove that way.  An alternative to hang my hat on to establish reasonable doubt.  No such theory came.  The defense was even weaker than the prosecution's case.

My Conclusions
In my book, the entire case turned on that VGT test.  I'm not convinced that Xanax was the substance.  Neither side's story in my opinion, explained what was really going on that morning of 5/6/2013.

So, was it a conspiracy by the establishment to get Bettis?  Well, they didn't put him behind the wheel that day, and I do believe that officer Rogers' field tests were done properly and reported correctly.  As I said, I believe Bettis to be guilty of DUI.

On the other hand, they may have piled on the charges in excess, and they called in the state's heaviest hitters to make the case against Bettis for what could have been treated as a less serious crime.  They main charge was not just DUI, but aggravated DUI (which carries a stiffer penaly).  They asked the jury if his DUI was aggravated by reckless and dangerous driving, but they they added a separate charge of reckless driving (yes he did).   They asked the jury if his DUI was aggravated by having children in the car (yes he did), but then they added separate charges of child abuse.  That sounds like piling on to me.  I suspect that other defendants in similar circumstances would have been charged with only DUI.

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