Crime

Trial opens in fatal crash where Everson driver refused blood draw due to religion

Jason Schuyleman, of Everson, on the motorcycle he was riding the night he was killed in a collision in December 2014. He was 38.
Jason Schuyleman, of Everson, on the motorcycle he was riding the night he was killed in a collision in December 2014. He was 38. Courtesy to the Bellingham Herald

A trial began this week for an Everson driver charged with vehicular homicide for a crash that killed a motorcyclist in late 2014.

So far testimony has focused as much on the crash itself as what came afterward that Friday night in early December, when Brian Jeffery Smith, 33, fought with medical staff – kicking, screaming, flailing his arms, seemingly “psychotic,” one doctor testified – when they tried to draw his blood at St. Joseph hospital.

Smith claimed that giving blood was against his religion, hospital staff testified. Later he told a nurse that there was a “pretty good chance” that if he took any sedatives he would have a cardiac arrest. By then troopers had a warrant for the blood draw. They suspected he was driving drunk when he caused a fatal crash earlier that Dec. 5, 2014, night.

Around 8:50 p.m., a white Chevrolet Suburban collided head-on with a westbound Honda VF110c motorcycle on Kale Street west of Everson. Smith had been turning left to his neighborhood at Christopher Lane.

An off-duty nurse, Elizabeth Diaz, heard the crash and rushed out of her car to help, she testified Tuesday on the first day of trial. She saw the motorcycle first, then the motorcyclist on the hood of the Chevy. The front end of the SUV took massive damage: the windshield shattered, the fender folded to the front axle. She found a pulse, and gave aid until ambulances arrived. The motorcyclist asked her to get off of his chest. She was not on his chest.

Jason Lyle “Bone” Schuyleman, of Everson, a married father of five, died in surgery at St. Joseph hospital of a lacerated aorta. He was 38.

At the scene the Chevy driver, Smith, made repeated apologies to Schulyeman. Diaz was shocked, she testified, when she learned later that Smith was accused of driving drunk. To her he seemed sober. A state trooper, however, testified that Smith acted strange.

“I remember him, several times, smiling,” Trooper Brad Beattie said on the witness stand. “I remember him, at several points, laughing, which I thought to be not normal behavior. It was a serious collision … and to me it wasn’t a time to be laughing or smiling.”

Beattie guided Smith through field sobriety tests. The trooper saw six of six clues on a horizontal gaze test – jerky pupils, inability to follow a moving object smoothly, etc. – and three of eight clues in a walk-and-turn test. Smith was arrested and driven to St. Joseph hospital.

Once troopers got a warrant to draw his blood, Smith refused, calmly, at first. So nurses consulted with a medical legal expert. They returned, knowing they could legally draw his blood without permission, but Smith flailed and jerked away from the needle.

He told the nurse in charge, Judy Margeson, that he did not do well with needles, she testified. He told them it was against his religion to have his blood drawn, according to Beattie. The trooper recalled asking what religion, but getting no answer. A nurse held Smith’s arm. A phlebotomist tried a few times to stick in the needle, but each time he yanked away.

Defense attorney Mark Kaiman questioned another nurse, Nicole Thomas, if she thought it was simply the needle that made Smith afraid. She wasn’t sure, she said.

“Do you know Brian Smith?” Kaiman asked.

“No,” she said.

“Do you know what he’s afraid of?”

“No.”

“Do you know how he reacts when he’s afraid?”

She did not.

Smith was taken to a padded room, where he continued to refuse commands. Beattie pulled out a Taser, pressed it against Smith’s chest, and ordered him to get on a hospital bed. Smith complied. Then he was put into four-point restraints, but continued to fight. A doctor, Oleg Ravitsky, decided to sedate Smith against his will.

“I felt that he was either psychotic, or under the influence of some kind of medication causing him to act psychotic,” Ravitsky said on the stand. “He did not seem like ... a rational person able to make decisions.”

Smith told staff he could not take a sedative, because his heart would stop. Margeson asked him if that had happened to him before. She consulted his medical history and found nothing to suggest it was true. Ten people held him down, according to the deputy prosecutor, George Roche. Eventually they gave him the sedative through another larger needle, and blood samples were obtained about 4½ hours after the crash.

A crime lab found his blood-alcohol content was 0.05 percent, according to an opening statement by Roche. Alcohol fades from the bloodstream at a rate of about .016 percent each hour. Doing the math, Smith would have been above the legal limit.

Attorneys for the defense, Kaiman and Jonathan Rands, argued that the blood tests should be excluded from the trial because law enforcement used an overly intrusive method to obtain them, literally going under the defendant’s skin and sedating him without consent.

In a motion before the trial, the defense pointed to cases in which defendants’ Constitutional rights were violated when they were sedated, intubated, or anally probed, according to rulings by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

“In this case,” Rands wrote, “the execution of this warrant by way of what can only be described as reckless and forced sedation, was not only an assault in the form of medical battery of the Defendant, but also as a result illegal with criminal culpability.”

Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder ruled that the blood evidence could be presented to the jury, and the prosecution plans to present that evidence next week.

The defense declined to make an opening statement until it’s time to present their case. Jurors were asked to be available past Thanksgiving.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb

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