The Jury Has the Last Word

    A Huntington man who chose to go before a jury rather than admit to a charge of driving while intoxicated was found guilty of the charge in East Hampton Justice Court on Friday.

    John J. O’Brien not only refused to take a breath test when being questioned by police two years ago after an accident, but refused to take any sobriety test at all. His attorneys, Tina Piette and Christian Killoran, argued in part that since he had not taken the standard roadside tests, and since the arresting officer never saw him drive the car, there was no proof that he was anything but sober.

    It was an argument the jury did not buy.

    The jurors, four men and two women, deliberated for about an hour at the end of a 10-hour second day of trial before reaching their verdict. Most of them declined to comment afterward except for one man, who would not give his name. “The guy convicted himself,” the juror said. “They kind of hoisted themselves on their own petard.”

    East Hampton Town Justice Lisa Rana presided over the trial.

    The incident began at about 3 a.m. on July 24, 2011, a Sunday, when Peter Stankadi, who was loading fuel from his tanker truck into the underground tanks at the Mobil Station in Amagansett, noticed three people in a dark-colored vintage convertible Cadillac. The 1979 Caddy was distinctive, he told the jury, as it had a hood ornament of two bull horns. After the Cadillac drove off, a cab driver, Albert Van Slyke, told Mr. Stankadi that it had backed into the front end of the tanker truck, damaging it.

    After speaking with the two men, an East Hampton Town police officer, Christopher Brown, radioed patrol cars to be on the lookout for the bull-horned Caddy. A few minutes later, a village officer radioed back that he had found the car parked in front of the Middle School on Newtown Lane, more than halfway out on the road. Mr. O’Brien was behind the wheel, listening to music. His two passengers were asleep.

    “He thought he was parked off the roadway,” the village officer, Jack Bartelme, told the jury as he was questioned by Maggie Bopp, an assistant county district attorney.

    Officer Brown testified that after he had Mr. O’Brien walk to the back of the car, he refused to take sobriety tests. “Once he got to the back of the vehicle, he was swaying back and forth,” the officer told the jury, adding that Mr. O’Brien told him, “ ‘Yes, I had something to drink. I was pulling out and the truck backed into me.’ ” At headquarters, the officer said, the man told him, “ ‘The girl spilled beer on me. I wouldn’t pass.’ ”

    During a recess, Mr. O’Brien, who did not take the stand in his own defense, said he’d been speaking in jest to the officer, who, he said, had misconstrued his comments.

    Mr. Killoran focused during much of his long cross-examination of Officer Brown on apparent errors in police paperwork, and on how police determine that someone is intoxicated. The jury, which had paid rapt attention as Ms. Bopp questioned the officer, seemed to lose focus during Mr. Killoran’s cross-examination, fidgeting and looking down. One of the female jurors sighed audibly several times.

    Normally in a drunken-driving trial, the defense attorney will challenge the validity of roadside sobriety tests. Here, because his client had refused to take the tests, Mr. Killoran had no such option.

    A key moment in the trial came on the first day, when Mr. Van Slyke took the stand. He told the jury he had seen Mr. O’Brien back his car into the tanker truck, start to pull away, then back into it a second time.

    “Is the driver of that car in the courtroom today?” Ms. Bopp asked. Mr. Van Slyke said that he was, and pointed at Mr. O’Brien.

    “I told him a drunk guy hit the truck,” Mr. Van Slyke said he told Officer Brown. “Being a bartender for six years, being a cab driver for 15 years, I can tell when somebody is drunk.”

    Mr. Killoran, who acted as lead attorney for the defendant, challenged Mr. Van Slyke’s memory of what he had seen but did not question the cab driver’s other claim. During his summation he called the prosecution’s case a “house of cards.”
    Ms. Bopp, in her closing argument, called the case a structure with a strong foundation. “The defendant was intoxicated,” she said, addressing the jury. “I don’t get the last word. You guys get the last word.”

    The word, as spoken by the jury foreman, was guilty.

    Ms. Piette said afterward that she would appeal. Sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 22.