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Wednesday, January 23 , 2019, 8:08 am | Fair 39º


Santa Ynez Valley Man Found Guilty in Fatal DUI Case

A jury on Friday convicted Santa Ynez Valley resident Benjamin Bettencourt of two felony DUI charges stemming from an accident in 2012 that critically injured his passenger, who later died.
A jury on Friday convicted Santa Ynez Valley resident Benjamin Bettencourt of two felony DUI charges stemming from an accident in 2012 that critically injured his passenger, who later died. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

A Santa Barbara County Superior Court jury on Friday found Benjamin Bettencourt of the Santa Ynez Valley guilty of two felony drunken-driving charges in connection with a 2012 crash that critically injured his passenger, who later died.

The panel reached the verdict Friday afternoon following a several hours of deliberations.

Bettencourt was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol causing injury, driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher and enhancements for causing great bodily injury. Jurors returned guilty verdicts for both charges and the special allegations. 

Bettencourt, a paraplegic due to a prior crash in which a girl died, was driving a specially equipped van when it veered off Highway 246 between Buellton and Solvang, striking a tree and critically injuring his passenger, Jennifer Clark, 39, of Los Olivos. Clark died a few days later. She had worked as an adaptive physical education teacher in the Santa Ynez Valley and coached volleyball.

Clark’s sister, Erin Parsons, who has traveled from Arizona to attend most of the trial, hailed the verdict.

“We finally got justice for Jenny,” she said outside the court complex Friday afternoon.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Kevin Duffy said he was happy with the jury verdicts. 

“I am exceptionally pleased for the victim's family that has been present in court for the vast majority of the jury trial,” he said. “I cannot even imagine how hard it was for them to hear the defense continually attack and blame their loved one Jennifer for causing the collision for over seven weeks of trial. Thankfully the jury saw the truth.”

At Duffy’s request and over the objections of defense attorney Darryl Genis, Judge Rogelio Flores remanded Bettencourt into custody during Friday’s hearing and scheduled sentencing for May 4.

Bettencourt faces a maximum sentence of six years in state prison, according to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office.

Genis said he intends to file a motion for a new trial based on what he called “numerous” acts of prosecutorial misconduct and errors in judicial rulings throughout the trial.

Since Flores who made the initial rulings will decide on the motion, he likely deny it, Genis said, adding the step is required before he can appeal the verdict.

Genis had contested field sobriety tests, blood tests and laboratory procedures during the trial in addition to arguing that an “extremely drunk” Clark grabbed the steering wheel and caused van to veer off the road. Her blood alcohol level was 0.20 percent.

But Duffy argued that Bettencourt had lied to officers about how much he had to drink the day of the crash and that the man abandoned his role as designated driver. In addition, the prosecutor played recordings of jail conversations where Bettencourt, according to Duffy, changed his story about how the accident happened.

This is the second fatal accident Bettencourt has been involved in, with the first occurring in 1998 when his passenger Lesley Alejo died.

“We feel that Jennifer’s and Lesley’s deaths are now vindicated and that justice has been served,” Clark’s sister said Friday.

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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