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JURY RULES ALCOHOL DID NOT CAUSE CRASH THAT COST MAN HIS LEGS

It was Tom Slattery's idea last winter to stop and help a carload of teens whose vehicle was stuck in a ditch on an unfamiliar road in rural Niagara County.

Six months later, it was a jury of six people who decided drinking did not play a major role that foggy night when an alcohol-impaired driver ran his truck into Slattery, costing the 24-year-old man the loss of his legs.

"There's no sense dwelling on it," said Slattery on Friday, the day after a four-day trial ended in the acquittal of Richard C. Calhoon on charges of criminally negligent assault.

"It could have been one of the kids who got killed," Slattery said. "It could have happened to anyone. I was just the one who happened to be standing there."

Thursday evening, Slattery was sitting in his customized wheelchair when the verdict was rendered. He, like family and friends who surrounded him, was speechless.

While Calhoon was acquitted on two counts of criminally negligent assault -- for injuries to Slattery and his uncle, Ernest W. Ganshaw -- the former bar owner was convicted of alcohol-impaired driving.

Friday, Ganshaw was trying to figure out what happened in court. He had been with Slattery the evening of Feb. 18, driving the truck that Calhoon subsequently struck. When asked, both Slattery and Ganshaw said that if they were to come upon a stranded motorist again, they would offer help.

"I'm not happy," said Ganshaw, who suffered jaw and leg injuries in the accident. "It seems you go out and drink and do anything you want. It's not something you forget about, I'll tell you that much."

Calhoon's blood-alcohol content was determined to be .07. And while Calhoon admitted to investigators and a hospital nurse that he had consumed a "couple of beers" on the night of the accident, the jury was not convinced that his drinking caused the accident.

Calhoon has declined to comment.

"Apparently, the jury was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that alcohol was a major factor in this crash, despite expert testimony that everyone suffers degradation of driving skills at the BAC level involved in this case," said Assistant District Attorney Ted Brenner, who prosecuted the case.

None of the six jurors could be reached to comment.

Charles Patrick Ewing, a professor of criminal law at the University at Buffalo Law School, points to an inadequate judicial network and the acceptance of social drinking as possible factors in the jury's decision.

"Unfortunately, many people do drink and drive," Ewing said. "People who drink and drive generally do not have accidents and generally don't hurt anyone, so there is the assumption when it does happen it must be an accident, and there must be other factors involved."

Foggy conditions were a major factor the night of the accident, according to testimony of many of the 21 witnesses called. The weather was so bad, contended defense attorney P. Anthony Vona, that Mercy Flight could not even send a helicopter to the area.

"This case is awful in that the man lost his legs," Ewing said. "The judicial system is extremely inadequate. Courts just don't take these things seriously."

The ordeal, Slattery said, has been a learning experience.

"I know I will never drink and drive," said Slattery, who is engaged to be married next August.

"I look at people differently now, especially people who are handicapped."

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