Wednesday, July 18 , 2018, 1:43 am | Fair 64º


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DUI Driver Convicted of Killing Passenger in Santa Ynez Crash Seeks New Trial

A Santa Ynez Valley man convicted of driving while drunk and causing a 2012 crash that killed a passenger in his vehicle is seeking a new trial after claiming his attorney was ineffective.

Benjamin Lee Bettencourt, 40, was sentenced to five years in state prison after the 2015 trial in Santa Barbara County Superior Court.

The case stems from the Nov. 24, 2012, crash on Highway 246 between Solvang and Buellton.

A passenger in Bettencourt’s van, Jennifer Clark, 39, of Los Olivos, died days later. She was a popular Santa Ynez Valley teacher and coach.

Bettencourt’s new attorney, Steve Balash, claimed his client’s previous attorney, Darryl Genis, was ineffective due to “abruptly resting the defense case without producing readily available evidence,” and advising the defendant not to testify on his own behalf .

Specifically, Balash contends the defense did not offer any evidence that Clark allegedly interfered with control of the van, causing the accident.

Bettencourt drove a specially equipped van because he was paralyzed in a previous crash that also killed a passenger in his vehicle.

“There were many questions put to witnesses that insinuated that she could have been in temporary control of the vehicle prior to the accident, but there was no testimony either direct or by way of an expert opinion that she did interfere with the control of the van,” Balash wrote.

“There was no evidence that would allow the jury conclude other than that the defendant was driving the van at the time of the accident.”

Balash also contends no evidence was admitted regarding Bettencourt having diabetes, a fact the defense attorney claims could have caused a false reading on the preliminary alcohol screening test.

A California Highway Patrol officer said Bettencourt denied being diabetic at the crash scene.

But Balash said “ample corroboration” of Bettencourt’s diabetes was readily available, but not presented as evidence during the trial.

From the start of the trial, Genis said Bettencourt would testify in his own defense, Balash noted. However, Genis reportedly told Bettencourt the evidence favored the defense and told the court the defendant’s testimony wasn’t necessary.

“There can be no tactical reason for advising the petitioner not to testify when it was always his intention to do so,” Balash said. “There can be no tactical reason for abruptly ending the trial, striking the testimony of the defense expert who said that his opinion was that Ms. Clark was out of her seat, who also offered evidence of the effect of diabetes on a blood alcohol test, and testified that the petitioner is a diabetic.”

Genis’s advice the evidence favored the defense was “clearly erroneous,” Balash said.

“There was no evidence favorable to the defense as to what happened in the van moments before the accident,” Balash said, adding the defense did not challenge jail conversation taken out of context.

The longer-than-planned trial’s schedule affected the advice Bettencourt should not testify, Genis said in a declaration.

Due to the judge’s planned vacation, Bettencourt’s testimony likely would have started before the 12-day recess and ended afterward. That would have required the defendant to remember his precise testimony, Genis said. 

“Benjamin Lee Bettencourt is a very intelligent young man, who is not a 'shrinking violet,’” Genis wrote. “If he really wanted to exercise his right to testify, which I expressly informed him of, both on the day he waived it, as well as on several previous …occasions, he would have insisted upon exercising it,” Genis said.

Balash also argued Bettencourt faced improper charges, leading to a sentence 1.4 years longer than if convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter.

“Because of the cumulative errors in this case, appellant requests that this court grant a new trial. However, should the court not be so inclined, Appellant requests that the conviction be modified to reflect the conviction of vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence and the case be remanded to the trial court for resentencing,” Balash said.

Bettencourt is incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione.

During the trial, Genis clashed frequently with prosecuting attorney Kevin Duffy, to the point that Judge Rogelio Flores threatened to put both men in a jail cell.

On another day, Flores criticized Genis about comments made about the prosecutor's wife.

“You have been given warning in this court you are to push that envelope no more, because if I have to fly to San Francisco to meet with the Supreme Court about your conduct in this case, I will do so,” Flores said according to the court transcript Balash filed in his court documents.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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