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Sobering Defense

Sean Deasy's blood-alcohol content was nearly twice the legal limit after he crashed his car -- an accident that killed his friend and passenger, Joseph Walker. A police officer reported that Deasy "had glassy eyes" at the time.

But according to Allegheny County Administrative Judge Jeffrey Manning, alcohol didn't cause Deasy to lose control of his Ford Mustang, slamming it into a utility pole along West Liberty Avenue.

Deasy, a 34-year-old former Pittsburgh police officer from Banksville, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, speeding and reckless driving. Manning also convicted Deasy of DUI -- Deasy's blood-alcohol content tested 0.149 -- and homicide by vehicle. But he acquitted Deasy of a more serious charge that combines the two offenses: "homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence."

That charge would have carried at least three years of prison time. As it was, Manning sentenced Deasy from six months to about 24 months in a halfway house with work release.

Manning says that he's not allowed to comment further on the case, but he added, "It's a causation question. ... The evidence indicates that it was the speed that caused the accident."

Police say Deasy was driving at twice the 35 mph speed limit.

"The judge had the case flipped," argues Rebecca Shaver, the Pennsylvania state executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "He said that the speed was the cause of the crash. I think the alcohol was the cause of the speed."

Deasy declined to comment for this story. His attorney, William H. Difenderfer, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment. But according to the law, being a lousy driver in general can actually help your defense in this type of case.

"It's very difficult to prove that the alcohol is what caused the death," says George Heym, a DUI defense lawyer and former Allegheny County DUI prosecutor. Defendants can create reasonable doubt by offering up alternative explanations for a crash, such as road conditions or reckless driving.

"The fact that you had a history of driving recklessly while sober would bolster the argument to a jury," Heym says. "If you had dozens of speeding tickets, that could very easily be raised as a defense. ... I've seen cases where that was exactly the argument that was made." Just proving that someone caused another person's death while under the influence of alcohol doesn't cut it, he says: "You have to prove that the person wouldn't have died had the [defendant] not been under the influence of alcohol."

Michael Piecuch, the executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, agrees. Homicides by DUI are some of "the most complicated cases that prosecutors work on," he says. Prosecutors must show that the alcohol incapacitated the driver and that the accident couldn't be caused by something else -- "a high burden of proof," he says.

Joseph Walker's family was not pleased with the sentencing.

"We're very disappointed," says Walker's father, Mark Walker, of Robinson. "We don't think that six months in a halfway house is an appropriate sentence."

Mike Manko, a spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney's office, says prosecutors presented Deasy's blood-alcohol level as evidence during the trial and asked for jail time during the sentencing hearing, but he couldn't comment further.

Deasy's accident took place on April 21, 2004. According to a recount in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he and Walker had been drinking and playing Trivial Pursuit with their wives, when the two men went out some time before 2 a.m., to make a beer run.

Since Deasy's sentencing, MADD's Western Pennsylvania affiliate office has received a handful of calls from people concerned about Manning's decision. Shaver calls Deasy's sentence "inappropriate."

"My heart goes out to [Joseph Walker's] family," she adds. "It's tragic."

Deasy must pay the Walker family $11,090.95 in restitution and spend five years in an alcohol-free probation program on top of his halfway-house time, which begins on March 13.

But Mark Walker still believes Deasy's getting off too light. The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, a state legislative agency, recommends 9- to 16-month sentences for vehicular homicide convictions in cases where a DUI conviction is also made.

"He should have had at least nine months," Walker says. "Six months is below the recommended range, and that is an insult.

"My opinion is that a police officer was treated differently than the average Joe," he says. "We don't have any ill will against Sean. ... [But] we're not happy with the sentence."

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Disability Pride

By Mars Johnson