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Mistrial declared in landmark drunken driving case

From Jonathan Wald

Kenneth Powell, right, and attorney Carl Roeder in court Monday.
Kenneth Powell, right, and attorney Carl Roeder in court Monday.

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SALEM, New Jersey (CNN) -- For the second time in six months, a state judge declared a mistrial in a landmark drunken driving case after jurors said they were "hopelessly deadlocked" Monday after 14 hours of deliberation in three days.

Prosecutors have until February 21 to decide if they will try Kenneth Powell, 41, a third time.

Powell is on trial for vehicular homicide and aggravated assault because he allowed his friend, Michael Pangle, to drive after Pangle had been arrested for driving while intoxicated. Pangle later crashed into another vehicle, killing the driver and himself.

Powell faced up to 15 years in prison if convicted. He was charged in the case even though he was not present at the accident, provided his friend with no alcohol and did not own the vehicle that his friend was driving.

Assistant Salem County Prosecutor Michael Ostrowski said there was no precedent for such a prosecution.

The accident happened July 22, 2000, after Pangle was released following his arrest for driving while intoxicated.

Pangle had drunk 10 beers, several shots of tequila and smoked marijuana, prosecutors said.

Powell picked up Pangle at the state police barracks in Bridgeton, New Jersey, drove Pangle to his SUV and headed home.

In less than an hour, Pangle slammed head-on into the car of a 22-year-old Navy ensign, John Elliott. Pangle and Elliott were killed, and Elliott's girlfriend fell into a coma lasting almost a week.

Prosecutors said Pangle continued drinking after his release from jail. An autopsy showed that his blood-alcohol level rose almost 25 percent after his arrest.

Prosecutors claimed Powell was partly responsible for the accident because he returned Pangle to his vehicle, instead of taking him home.

In his first trial in August, Powell was charged with manslaughter, vehicular homicide and aggravated assault. The jury acquitted him on the manslaughter charge but deadlocked on the other two.

Powell's lawyer, Carl Roeder, told CNN in a telephone interview that Powell was "relieved and hopeful that the state does not try his case again."

Roeder called Powell "a blind Good Samaritan," saying the police did not inform Powell of Pangle's condition or that he could be held criminally responsible for letting Pangle drive.

Roeder said Powell should not be held responsible for his friend's actions and blamed police for releasing Pangle and handing him the keys.

"If it wasn't for the state's actions, Ken Powell would not have faced trial," Roeder said. "State police didn't take measures to protect three people's lives and safeguard Ken Powell's interests. Put simply, it's immature of our society -- an entire state -- to be culpable and then say it's completely someone else's fault."

Roeder warned that holding Powell accountable for the crash would have implications for third-party liabilities across the country.

"You would open the door to the prosecution of toll collectors, gas station attendants and anyone else who sees a drunk driver but doesn't prevent them from driving," Roeder said.

Prosecutor Michael Ostrowski insisted that Powell had to know Pangle was drunk, either from his appearance or from the fact that police had called him to pick up Pangle.

Police were obliged to release Pangle and return all personal property after his arrest, said Ostrowski.

"Kenneth Powell's actions amount to a monumental failure of reason," Ostrowski said. "Nobody has a duty to prevent someone from committing a crime. But you have a duty not to help someone commit a crime."

John Elliott's father, Bill, remained stoic after the trial's outcome.

"We accept the decision of the jury," Elliott told CNN by telephone.

"What we don't accept is that my son's accident was the result of an accident. It was the result of a tragic crash that could and should have been prevented. We will not push for another trial. Going through the past two trials was like losing John all over again in slow motion."

The crash led the state of New Jersey and the city of Boston to pass "John's Law," which enables police to impound the vehicle of a drunken driver for up to 12 hours. Sen. Jon Corzine, D-New Jersey, has proposed the nationwide adoption of "John's Law" in Congress.

Last year, there were 17,448 people killed and more than 300,000 injured in alcohol-related traffic incidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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