Jury delivers mixed verdict in Duluth fatal accident trialAuthorities said Daniel Dougherty was under the influence of a prescription sleep aid when he crashed his SUV into another car, but Dougherty’s defense team argued that he took half a sleeping pill by mistake and was not under its influence at the time of the accident.
By: Steve Kuchera, Duluth News Tribune
Duluth funeral director Daniel Dougherty was found not guilty Friday of driving under the influence of a controlled substance in the March 15, 2009, crash that killed Timothy Schlies and Hans Warren.
But the six-member jury did find him guilty of careless driving and failure to obey a traffic device.
“I don’t agree, but I do believe in the American system,” Dougherty said after the verdict. “I do believe juries work hard. That’s what they decided and I’m OK with that.”
The crimes are misdemeanors punishable by a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Sixth Judicial District Judge Heather Sweetland ordered a presentence investigation and ordered Dougherty, 52, to cooperate with authorities. Because of the hour, she did not schedule sentencing.
The jury reached its verdict shortly before 8 p.m. Friday after more than five hours of deliberations. The trial began Tuesday with opening statements. Witnesses testified Wednesday, Thursday and half the day Friday. The attorneys made their closing arguments Friday afternoon, and the three-man, three-woman jury left the courtroom to begin deliberations around 2:30 p.m.
Defense attorney David Keegan and Hermantown City Prosecutor Shawn Reed both declined to comment following the verdict.
Authorities said Dougherty was under the influence of a prescription sleep aid when he ran a red light at the intersection of U.S. Highway 53 and Arrowhead Road, his SUV broadsiding the Toyota Camry driven by Schlies.
In his closing argument, Reed asked jurors to find Dougherty guilty on all three counts, saying that his actions before and after the crash showed beyond a reasonable doubt that he was under the influence of the medication.
“He put himself at risk, he put others at risk … and two people died — Timothy Schlies and Hans Warren — as a result of Mr. Dougherty’s careless driving that night,” Reed said.
In his closing arguments, Keegan told jurors that Dougherty “has accepted moral responsibility” for the crash. But the state wants to assign criminal responsibility. To do so, the state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Dougherty is guilty.
“Beyond reasonable doubt means you have to be morally certain,” he said.
“Ultimately such a tragic thing,” Keegan said of the accident, “but the case has to be decided on the facts,” which are not sufficient to find Dougherty guilty.
Dougherty testified Friday morning about what happened on the night of the crash. He began losing his composure as he told how he spent the next day with the two men who would have handled his funeral had he died. He broke down after describing the deaths of Schlies, 26, and Warren, 27, as “devastating.”
After a pause while Dougherty struggled to regain his composure, Keegan asked if he felt responsible for Schlies’ and Warren’s deaths.
“Of course; I was driving the car,” he said.
When asked by Keegan whether he thought his driving ability was affected by the Ambien he had taken, Dougherty replied, “Not even close.”
During cross-examination, however, Reed read from an interview law enforcement officers had with Dougherty in which he said the last thing he remembered before the crash was passing the Hermantown Wal-Mart store, approximately a quarter-mile from the crash scene.
On Wednesday, two Minnesota State Patrol troopers who responded to the accident scene testified that Dougherty appeared to be under the influence of something shortly after the accident.
Dougherty said Friday any disorientation was “from being hit by an airbag at 200 miles an hour.”
Several bottles of prescription and over-the-counter pills were found in Dougherty’s vehicle. Testimony indicated that he had been spending time at his own home and at his ex-wife’s, and he carried his medication in his vehicle as a convenience.
Zolpidem, also known as Ambien, was found in Dougherty’s blood sample. The drug is a fast-acting hypnotic, which helps calm activity in the brain to induce sleep.
Dougherty testified that he took what he thought was a pill for cholesterol between 11:25 and 11:35 that night, about a half-hour before the crash. He said either he or the pharmacy must have mistakenly put the Ambien in the bottle of cholesterol medicine.
The Ambien is a white pill; the cholesterol medicine he was taking was pink.
“You did not take a pink pill out of this bottle that night?” Reed asked Dougherty Friday. “That night you took a white pill out of this bottle?”
Dougherty agreed he must have, since blood tests found it in his system.
While talking about the time leading up to the crash, Dougherty said he thought the traffic light was green. But under cross-examination he acknowledged that he couldn’t be sure what color the lights were.
Three witnesses testified Wednesday that they believe Dougherty ran a red light.
On Thursday, State Patrol Sgt. Neil Dickenson, who reconstructed the accident, testified that he determined Dougherty was traveling a little over 55 mph and Schlies a little over 6 mph at the time of the collision.
Donald J. Anderson, an engineer who reconstructs accidents, testified for the defense Friday. He said the map of the scene produced by law enforcement contained errors, and he questioned the State Patrol reconstruction. He said he believes Schlies’ car could have been traveling faster than 40 mph while Dougherty’s SUV was traveling at 49 mph.
“At a red light, the speed limit is zero,” Reed said to Anderson.
“Correct,” he replied.