A Hamilton County jury acquitted a man of vehicular homicide Thursday in an unusual case in which the prosecution said the passenger of a sport utility vehicle was criminally responsible for the driver’s actions.
The verdict signaled the end to a four-year ordeal for Bachar Martin, 27, who told jurors he never would have let his friend Jeremiah Mann drive home if he had known he was intoxicated.
“I am relieved that it is over after four years,” Mr. Martin said. “I’m sorry it ever happened.”
The jury was unable to come to a verdict on a lesser misdemeanor charge of DUI by consent, which held that Mr. Martin had facilitated Mr. Mann’s driving under the influence. Mr. Martin pleaded guilty to that charge immediately on advice from his attorney, and he could be sentenced to serve up to 11 months at Silverdale Detention Center. A hearing is scheduled for July 7.
A day of drinking in 2004 in Chattanooga ended in tragedy when Mr. Mann, who was driving a Lincoln Navigator, struck a smaller car. The impact instantly killed Dwight Brooks, who was heading to work.
Mr. Mann pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide last June and testified against his “former best friend” during the trial. Both had been drinking that day and had blood alcohol levels over the legal limit of 0.08, but the prosecution said Mr. Martin — who was a passenger in the SUV — was criminally responsible for the homicide because he owned the vehicle and allowed Mr. Mann to drive.
A statute in Tennessee law makes a person who gives a vehicle to a drunk driver complicit in DUI, but the statute does not apply to vehicular homicide.
Members of Mr. Brooks’ family left the courtroom in tears and declined comment on the verdict.
But Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern told Mr. Martin, “This has turned out the best it could possibly be for you.”
Although Judge Stern denied a motion by defense attorney Bill Pope to make a judgment of acquittal on the vehicular homicide charge, she said, “I have a hard time with it myself, but let’s give the jury the power.” She said that if the jury convicted Mr. Martin of vehicular homicide, she’d have to “think hard” about whether to use her power to overturn the verdict.
Mr. Mann will be sentenced May 12. He could receive up to 12 years in prison.
Assistant District Attorney Jay Woods said he appreciated the fact the jury deliberated intensely over the charge of DUI by consent.
“Many Hamilton County juries don’t take DUI seriously, but this one did,” Mr. Woods said.