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Thursday, December 20,2001

Crucify the drunk

A zealous desire for revenge


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Eight friends at the University of Wyoming needed new shoes, and they knew of a sale in Fort Collins, just across the state line. All were members of the University of Wyomingıs cross country and track teams.

On Sept. 16 , the eight students piled into a Jeep Wagoneer and drove to Fort Collins. On the return trip, Clint Haskins crossed the center line in his pickup just south of Laramie and collided head on with the Wagoneer. All eight track team members died.

Haskins, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, survived and could spend the rest of his life in prison. He stands charged with eight counts of aggravated vehicular homicide. Aggravated because authorities suspect Haskins was drunk, mainly because a blood test taken at the hospital ER some 90 minutes after the crash showed his blood-alcohol level at 0.16 percent. The legal limit in Wyoming is 0.10 percent.

If the prosecutor canıt convince a jury that Haskins was drunk, he will find it difficult to make the aggravated homicide charges stick. At worst, Haskins would face some kind of vehicular manslaughter conviction. Instead of growing old behind bars, heıd likely face a few years of prison and parole. His life could be salvaged, while the lives of eight others would remain snuffed out.

And thatıs what should happen, unless the district attorney has some magic trick for convincing a jury that Haskins was drunk. Central to the prosecutionıs case against Haskins is the blood-alcohol test.

Defense lawyer Michael Krampner has asked District Judge Jeffrey A. Donnell to suppress the blood test so that the jury never hears about it. The problem with the test is that it appears to have been obtained unlawfully, or at least inappropriately. Krampner says he has evidence that Albany County Attorney Cal Rerucha and two officers pressured an emergency room doctor to draw blood as evidence for the criminal investigation.

Krampner argues that a Wyoming law, which authorizes emergency room doctors to draw blood samples for the police in fatal car crashes, violates his clientıs right to medical privacy and negates doctor-patient confidentiality. Most states, including Colorado, have similar laws which mandate that blood-alcohol evidence be collected in fatal crashes.

But Krampner has a valid point: "The police and prosecutor are not the draft board," he says in an Associated Press story. "They donıt have the power to conscript people to collect forensic evidence for them." Prosecutor Rerucha argues that because alcohol is rapidly metabolized, there is an urgency in the collection of blood evidence.

This is true, but laws which "conscript" physicians and other health-care workers as law-enforcement agents do indeed interfere with what should be a confidential relationship between doctor and patient‹a relationship which is protected by other laws. Similarly, courts have long respected laws that protect the privacy of the confessional. If the killer of JonBenet Ramsey ever confesses the crime to a priest, for example, prosecutors will be unable to force the priest to testify. Likewise with psychologists and psychiatrists.

In Colorado, doctors and blood technicians are free to refuse requests by police to draw blood for investigations. To make sure they donıt run up against that, says Colorado State Patrol Captain Robert Mitchell, the State Patrol has contracts with most hospitals to provide this service.

"There is a lot of court precedent nationwide which allows us to forcibly draw blood in the case of felonies," Mitchell says. "Itıs criminal evidence that dissipates, and the courts have ruled that it can be collected without a warrant under the exigent circumstances exceptions."

This is a reasonable and true argument, and one that gets police around the need for a warrant because a delay would result in loss of the evidence. But it should not allow cops to use doctors as evidence technicians. If the police need to preserve such blood evidence, then the police need to provide their own certified law-enforcement technicians to collect it.

People hate suppression of evidence, because it allows seemingly guilty suspects to go free. But without the suppression of unlawfully obtained evidence, we cannot maintain law, order and civility. We cannot enjoy privacy in our homes, in counseling, in medical treatment or in counseling.

Few events seem more tragic than the highway slaughter of eight young students. When we hear about it, we want the culprit to suffer and rot in jail until the day he dies. We want Billy, the prison-rape bully, to make him his bitch. And the idea that some glitch in the gathering of evidence could prevent this? Well thatıs just obscene. An exception should be made in this case, we demand.

But thatıs an emotional reaction, not a logical one. Itıs the tough, emotionally charged circumstances that test our resolve when it comes to protecting privacy and ensuring lawful behavior by law-enforcement officers.

Whether or not Haskins rots in jail, the eight innocent students are dead. Theyıd be just as dead if Haskins crossed the center line because he turned to look at a deer. Theyıd be just as dead if Haskins crossed the line while trying to wipe dribbled ketchup off of his shirt, or while trying to dial a cell phone.

Clint Haskins didnıt commit murder. There was no intent on his part to hurt anyone. He crossed the center line. If he was drunk, it was an egregious and felonious act. Convicting him of that, however, requires a high burden of proof. If the DA pressured a doctor in order to obtain crucial evidence, he probably canıt overcome the burden.

Without proof of drunkenness, Haskins should be treated as just another driver who made a costly mistake and crossed the center line. And thatıs OK, because the damage is done. Billy the Bully canıt bring eight people back to life.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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