An Everson man on trial for vehicular homicide testified Monday that he drank one beer, and no other alcoholic beverage, on the night of a crash that killed a Whatcom County motorcyclist.
Brian Jeffery Smith, 33, took the stand on the sixth day of the trial to recount the hours before and after his Chevy Suburban collided head-on with a Honda motorcycle as he turned into his neighborhood in Everson.
Jason Lyle “Bone” Schulyeman, 38, died in surgery at the hospital that night, Dec. 5, 2014.
Earlier that Friday evening, Smith, an oil refinery worker, spent a few hours at a BP company Christmas party where he said alcohol wasn’t served. Afterward, around 8 p.m., he ate a cheeseburger and fries with his wife at the Rusty Wagon on Hannegan Road. Smith did not order alcoholic drinks in the restaurant either, he testified.
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Once he finished dinner he walked outside to his wife’s car, he said. She had bought a pack of Budweiser for later, he said on the stand, and he decided to have one while she breastfed their baby in the parking lot.
Minutes later he was turning left from Kale Street to Christopher Lane, when his white Chevy Suburban struck a westbound Honda motorcycle. Smith said he did not see the bike’s headlight. An air bag banged into Smith’s face. The windshield shattered. Smith’s attorney, Mark Kaiman, asked him how he felt in that moment.
“I’m feeling it a bit right now,” Smith said on the stand. “I was in shock. I didn’t see what I’d hit, or what had hit me.”
He said he got out and saw Schuyleman, who was still alive, on the hood of the Chevy. Smith said he told him he was sorry, and that he would be OK. Police and an off-duty nurse gave medical aid, and Schuyleman was rushed to St. Joseph hospital in an ambulance. Meanwhile, a Washington State Patrol trooper arrived and asked Smith if he had been drinking. Smith told him he had not.
“Why did you tell them something that wasn’t true?” Kaiman asked.
“Because I was just scared, and worried, of what had just happened,” Smith replied. “I immediately wished I could’ve taken it back. I just felt that at that point, I didn’t know how to.”
In a horizontal-gaze test the trooper noted six out of six clues – jerky pupils, etc. – for impairment. Smith said, at the time, his eyes were burning from smoke from the aftermath of the crash though he did not mention the irritation right then. He told the trooper he did not see the motorcycle. On the stand he was asked again if he had seen the headlight.
“No, I didn’t,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t have turned.”
Smith was handcuffed and taken to St. Joseph hospital for a blood draw. He refused, despite a warrant, because of his fear of needles, he said. In his version of events, Smith asked staff: What if giving blood was against my religion – to gauge if there was another way to do this, he said. And once a doctor suggested he take a sedative to make him hold still, he recalls asking: How did doctors know he wasn’t allergic to sedatives?
Staff and state troopers testified Smith’s statements were declarative, as in, Smith claimed giving blood was against his religion, and that he would suffer cardiac arrest if given any sedative. Smith yanked away his arms whenever a phlebotomist tried to get his blood, according to witness testimony.
According to Smith, one of the troopers told him, “We’re taking your blood, you murderer” – which, Smith said, had the opposite of a calming effect. (In court a trooper, Patrick Williams, who was at the hospital, denied making that statement.) Smith was taken to a padded room.
Another trooper, Brad Beattie, testified that Smith would not follow instructions. So he ordered him onto a hospital bed by pressing a Taser against his body. That wasn’t necessary, Smith testified. He was restrained, but struggled against the restraints, according to hospital staff. One doctor, Oleg Ravitsky, said Smith seemed “psychotic.”
“So you wanted to prove that you weren’t intoxicated, didn’t you?” the chief criminal deputy prosecutor, Eric Richey, asked Smith in cross-examination.
“I would hope so,” Smith said.
“And to prove that,” Richey went on, “you could simply give a blood test?”
“OK. Yes, sure.”
“And instead of doing so, you struggled to avoid it.”
“I got scared when the needles came close, yes,” Smith said.
Eventually Smith was sedated. A sample of his blood was obtained about 4½ hours after the crash. A crime lab measured his blood-alcohol content at 0.05 percent, below the legal limit.
Gary Goldfogel, the county medical examiner, testified Monday afternoon that if Smith had a single beer, it would have been impossible for his blood-alcohol content to be 0.05, hours later. One beer would have burned through his bloodstream in about an hour, Goldfogel said.
Given the generally accepted burn-off rate, of 0.015 percent per hour, it would have been from 0.08 to 0.12 at the time of the crash, according to experts for the defense and prosecution. The defense witness, a former toxicologist, questioned whether that number is reliable.
Another defense witness, forensic crash reconstruction expert Dave Wells, questioned whether the motorcycle’s headlight was on at the time of the crash. He noted the wrecked motorcycle’s headlamp flickered on and off when he tested it, and suggested it might have malfunctioned that night.
In his closing argument, Richey showed jurors a crash scene photo of Schuyleman’s wrecked Honda motorcycle, with the headlight on, and other frontal lights glowing.
“That headlight’s operating,” Richey said. “You see all the other lights lit up like a Christmas tree.”
The defense will give closing arguments Tuesday morning, followed by rebuttal from the prosecution. Then the case goes to the jury to deliberate.