At noon Wednesday, a jury in Plymouth District Court found Justin McDonald not guilty of operating a motor boat while under the influence of alcohol.
Defense attorney Gregg Sullivan asserted the key point of his case, that hypothermia masked alcohol impairment in McDonald. Prosecutor Katie Rayburn countered that McDonald admitted to consuming 10 cans of beers before leaving the spit in Scituate.
Both sides agreed a failed steering mechanism caused the boat McDonald operated to spin out of control, resulting in the death of passenger Zach Woods.
In his instructions to the jury, Judge Christopher Welch carefully read the definition of reasonable doubt. Jurors deliberated for just an hour and returned to Courtroom C with the not guilty verdict.
Justin McDonald of Marshfield, 22 at the time, operated a boat off the coast of Brant Rock July 16th, 2011. The boat turned violently, tossing McDoanld and his only passenger, Zack Woods, in the water. A kayaker rescued McDonald. Woods’ body was recovered a week later.
A state police investigation into the boating incident determined a part in the boat’s steering mechanism failed, causing the craft to turn and toss both young men overboard. Police charged McDonald with operating under the influence of alcohol.
At McDonald’s trial this week, Assistant District Attorney Katie Rayburn arrived on loan from Bristol County because Plymouth District Attorney Tim Cruz knows the McDonald family. She planned to call six witnesses and defense attorney Gregg Sullivan planed to call 21 witnesses. They and Judge Christopher Welch impanelled a jury of four men and three women. In their openings, Rayburn said McDonald operated the boat while impaired. Sullivan said he appeared impaired due to the hypothermia he suffered while in the water for 20 minutes.
Rayburn called five of her witnesses, all law enforcement officers. They said McDonald smelled of beer, slurred his speech and was unsteady on his feet. The booking officers said they overheard him in a phone conversation say he drank 10 beers that day.
When the trial resumed Tuesday morning, the prosecution rested after calling a final witness, the defense rested late in the afternoon. Two interesting facts emerged. Cross-examining Marshfield paramedics, assistant district attorney Katie Rayburn read from a memo, on fire department letterhead, from chief Kevin Robinson. It said, in part. “We will not be involved in criminal investigations and will not be witnesses.” The paramedics denied knowledge of the memo and gave no assessment of MacDonald’s sobriety the night of the incident.
Also, during questioning of a defense witness, defense attorney Gregg Sullivan referred to the witness’s prior testimony before a grand jury. Prosecutors confirmed there was a homicide investigation, but could not comment further because all grand jury activity is secret. But, rather than a superior court indictment on a more serious charge, the government has only a charge of operating a motor boat while under the influence of alcohol in district court.
A former assistant harbor master and EMT who helped pull McDonald from the water July 16th, 2011, said she assessed him as drunk and not hypothermic, as the defense has claimed. Several young adults testified with statements like, “There was no crazy drinking that day,” referring to the gathering on the spit in Scituate in the hours before the incident. In the most emotional moment of the day Dan Wood of Columbus, Ohio, vacationing in Brant Rock the day of the accident, described how he got McDonald partially out of the water and onto the kayak he had learned to paddle the day before. He said, with the defective boat spinning in circles at high speed nearby, McDonald hoisted himself on the bow of the kayak and said, “My buddy’s dead. He saved my life.” Several family members left the courtroom sobbing.