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DUI Trial in Death of Santa Ynez Valley Teacher Enters Fifth Week

The drunken-driving trial for a Santa Ynez Valley man accused of critically injuring a friend who later died entered its fifth week in Santa Maria on Tuesday afternoon, with testimony centered on blood testing, the vehicle’s condition and the defendant’s own words.

Benjamin Bettencourt, 39, is charged in connection with the Nov. 24, 2012, crash on Highway 246 between Solvang and Buellton.

He faces charges of DUI, driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher, and enhancements for causing great bodily injury.

Bettencourt's van ran off the road and slammed into a tree, critically injuring Jennifer Clark, 39, of Los Olivos. The popular adaptive physical education teacher and volleyball coach died several days later.

California Highway Patrol Officer Brian Bedford, who sat with Bettencourt at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital for more than five hours after the crash, testified about hearing the defendant’s phone conversations.

In one conversation, the officer testified he heard Bettencourt say, “I’m (expletive).” 

But under cross-examination by defense attorney Darryl Genis, the officer said he couldn’t hear both sides of the phone conversation.

“When Mr. Bettencourt said 'I’m (expletive),' what was he saying it in respect to, if you know?” Genis asked.

“I don’t know,” Bedford said.

Genis asked about Bettencourt’s inflection, using a line from the film My Cousin Vinny to show the differences in the phrase “I shot the clerk?” or “I shot the clerk” — a question vs. a statement.

Later, Senior Deputy District Attorney Kevin Duffy asked the officer what the two-word phrase sounded like. Bedford said it didn’t sound like it ended with a question mark.

“It was more of an exclamation point,” Bedford said.

Another CHP officer, Anthony William McFarland, testified about his mechanical inspection of Bettencourt’s van, which was equipped with adaptive hand controls. 

Bettencourt is a paraplegic due to injuries he received in a prior fatal crash in which he also was driving in 1998. A passenger in that vehicle, 18-year-old Lesley Alejo, died.

McFarland said the vehicle’s hand controls were on the left side of the steering wheel column.

His examination determined there were no mechanical conditions on the vehicle that could have contributed to the cause of the crash.

Genis asked if a passenger sitting in the right front seat wearing a seat belt would have have been protected. 

But the officer said the section of the vehicle had caved in, and when asked whether a passenger would have suffered severe leg injuries, responded, “I can’t make a determination of that.”

Bettencourt at one time claimed Clark wasn’t in her seat and has said she yanked the steering wheel, causing the crash.

Earlier,  Genis asked Dean Warden, a senior criminologist at the Goleta lab, whether he knows that shaking a vial of blood can increase the blood-alcohol level.

“That’s is not true,” Warden said.

“If in fact the vial is mishandled at the point of collection, that puts in question your analysis?” Genius asked.

“If it was mishandled, that could have something to do with it,” Warden said.

The defense attorney has strongly challenged various aspects of the breath and blood tests that revealed Bettencourt had a blood-alcohol content that exceeded the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

The Santa Barbara County Superior Court trial before Judge Rogelio Flores began with jury selection Feb. 10. Some weeks have had two days of testimony due to the busy calendar in Flores' court.

In a related matter Tuesday afternoon, Flores deemed a former Department of Justice lab employee, Nick Coronado, was in contempt of court for allegedly ignoring defense attorney's summons.

Flores also sanctioned Coronado $2,000, to be paid to Genis, to cover the defense attorney's costs to issue the summons to the apparently elusive Coronado.

Additionally, Coronado was ordered to return to court to testify in the case at 9:30 a.m. March 18.

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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