Truck driver's attorneys dispute drug evaluation in fatal I-75 crash as trial nears

Truck driver's attorneys dispute drug evaluation in fatal I-75 crash as trial nears

Public defender calls 12-step examination 'voodoo science'

January 10th, 2018 by Zack Peterson in Breaking News

Benjamin Brewer, the truck driver who failed to stop his tractor-trailer on Interstate 75 and caused a wreck that killed six people on June 25, appears before Judge Don Poole for arraignment while at the Hamilton County Criminal Court's building in Chattanooga, Tenn., on September 11, 2015.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Public defenders for a 42-year-old trucker accused of killing six people on Interstate 75 argued Wednesday that jurors shouldn't hear about a drug evaluation that authorities used to predict their client took methamphetamine.

The drug evaluation program, which defender Jay Underwood called "voodoo science," is so flawed that state witnesses shouldn't be able to discuss it during Benjamin Brewer's vehicular homicide trial on Jan. 22, attorneys argued.

"The field validation studies indicate a rate of error with depressants of 50 percent. You might as well flip a coin," Underwood said. "A rate of success with stimulants is at 33 percent, so there's a huge rate of error in their own studies. The court should not allow the jury to hear voodoo science."

Proving that Brewer was intoxicated at the time of the June 25, 2015, crash on Interstate 75 that killed six and injured several more is a cornerstone of the state's criminal case.

But prosecutors said Underwood was looking at dated numbers and that officers nationwide have high success rates identifying impairment using the drug evaluation, which rolled out in the 1980s.

"There are known rates of error," prosecutor Crystle Carrion said, "but both impairment and classification are in the high 90 [percent rage]."

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Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole said Wednesday he would take everyone's arguments under consideration and issue a ruling in two or three days.

"A quick decision needs to be made, but a correct decision needs to be made," Poole said.

His haste is due to Brewer's fast-approaching trial, which the judge reluctantly canceled twice in 2017 as attorneys debated the admissibility of drug test results.

Prosecutors say Brewer never braked on June 25, 2015, plowed into stopped traffic near the Ooltewah exit, then gave a blood test on scene that local authorities sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

The results showed methamphetamine and amphetamine in his system, and Brewer was indicted for 13 crimes, including vehicular homicide, driving under the influence, reckless aggravated assault, speeding and violation of motor carrier regulations.

His trial hit a snag in June 2017 when defenders learned at the last minute that a second federal lab in Oklahoma tested Brewer's blood and found a different level of drugs.

When defenders asked a lab employee to take the stand and explain the discrepancies, government attorneys briefly tried to block the effort. Ultimately, they agreed to let defenders depose the employee under oath before trial.

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But how did authorities initially reach the conclusion that Brewer was under the influence? That's what defenders honed in on during Wednesday's hearing.

Brian Hickman, chief of police for Collegedale, a municipality near the crash, said he applied the drug recognition exam to Brewer and predicted he'd ingested depressants and stimulants.

The exam is a 12-step program that checks a person's breath, body temperature, blood pressure, pupil dilation and muscle tone, among other things. Officers also make suspects do field sobriety tests and ask whether they've eaten or taken any illegal or prescribed drugs.

The Los Angeles Police Department developed the exam with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and medical professionals at Johns Hopkins University in the 1980s. Before that, there was no standardized way to determine if a suspect was impaired, according to the LAPD's website.

Underwood took issue with a 1985 field study in which officers used the newly developed program on nearly 200 people arrested for driving under the influence of drugs. According to the LAPD's website, officers correctly identified all of the drugs in a person's system only 49 percent of the time. Certain factors complicated the study, the website said, including detained people who ingested more than one drug.

During his examination of the Collegedale police chief, Underwood said Hickman incorrectly guessed that Brewer had taken depressants.

"My question is, what made you think he was under the influence of a stimulant?" Underwood asked.

A number of physical indicators, Hickman said: "His pulses are all high, there were several clues on his balk-and-turn test, on his finger-to-nose test he missed all but one try, his eyes were showing dilated in the dark and in direct light. His blood pressure was high, he gave numerous clues on his one-leg stand."

As of Wednesday, the case remains set for trial Jan. 22 and attorneys will travel to Nashville a few days beforehand to pick a jury.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

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This story was updated Jan. 10, 2018, at 11:59 p.m. with more information.


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