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Expert Sets off Legal Debate With Opinion that Ship Could Have Sunk

March 7, 1990

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ Exxon Valdez skipper Joseph Hazelwood probably was drunk when his tanker ran aground and triggered the nation’s worst oil spill, a toxicologist testified Tuesday.

Richard Prouty, chief forensic toxicologist with the medical examiner’s office in Oklahoma, said he calculated that Hazelwood’s blood alcohol level would have been .14 percent at 12:05 a.m. on March 24, when the oil tanker ran aground on a reef in Prince William Sound.

The legal limit in Alaska for operating a motor vehicle is .10 percent.

The U.S. Coast Guard has a limit of .04 for operating a commercial vessel, but jurors were not told of the regulation because federal law is not involved in the state charges against Hazelwood.

The question of whether Hazelwood was drunk has been described by his lawyers as the keystone of the case, because it reflects on whether he acted recklessly as captain of the ship. The defense contends Hazelwood wasn’t drunk.

Assistant District Attorney Brent Cole asked whether Prouty would consider a person with a blood alcohol level of .14 to be impaired in reasoning and making decisions.

″It is my opinion they definitely would be impaired,″ Prouty said.

Prouty was called as the final witness in the prosecution’s case against Hazelwood, but his cross-examination was put off until Wednesday.

Earlier, Hazelwoods’ attorney suggested that an expert witness designed calculations to show the tanker would capsize, drawing a heated response from the witness.

″I did not contrive the calculations to show the ship would sink,″ said William Vorus, a professor of naval architecture at the University of Michigan.

Hazelwood, 43, is charged with criminal mischief, reckless endangerment, operating a vessel while intoxicated and negligent discharge of oil. The seaman from Huntington, N.Y., faces up to 7 1/4 years in prison and $61,000 in fines if convicted.

The Exxon Valdez spilled nearly 11 million gallons of Alaska crude, devastating the rich wildlife in Prince William Sound.

The most serious charge against Hazelwood is second degree criminal mischief, which involves acting recklessly in disregarding a known risk. Cole has focused on Hazelwood’s behavior after the grounding to prove this charge, with witnesses saying the skipper ordered the engines turned on and the ship pointed forward.

Some witnesses have said taking the ship off the rocks would cause it to capsize or sink.

But in a brief filed with the judge Monday, defense attorney Dick Madson argued there was no risk that the ship would come off the reef and Hazelwood could not have disregarded a risk that didn’t exist.

Vorus acknowledged he did not figure into his calculations any actions the crew of the stranded tanker might have taken to prevent sinking if the ship got off a jagged reef that hung it up and ruptured its tanks.

″There was no indication the crew was doing any of the things you indicated,″ he told attorney Michael Chalos.

″And there was no indication the vessel was coming off the reef, either, was there?″ asked Chalos.

″Under a slightly different situation, the vessel could have come off the reef,″ said Vorus.

But like other prosecution experts who testified before him, Vorus agreed the ship was stuck solidly on Bligh Reef and the scenario he created in which the ship was refloated and sank was hypothetical.

″Do you agree it couldn’t come off the reef?″ asked Chalos.

″Obviously, it didn’t come off and that’s as good a proof as any that it wouldn’t come off,″ Vorus said.

Before he concluded his testimony, Vorus attempted to make a strong protest of the defense attorney’s implications that the witnesses’ calculations were scripted by the prosecution.

″I object to the accusations that are being put forth here,″ declared the witness. ″I think the state conducted itself most properly in this case.″

Chalos objected that ″the witness is making a speech,″ but Superior Court Judge Karl Johnstone allowed the comments to stand.

Vorus earlier was allowed to give jurors an elaborate account of a computer simulation of the grounding. The witness, who said his engineering firm was being paid $40,000 by the state for its work on the Hazelwood prosecution, gave a scholarly account about how a ship stays afloat. He calculated that the Exxon Valdez would have capsized 75 minutes after grounding if it was freed from the reef in 10 minutes.

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