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The conviction of a speedboat driver whose passenger drowned in Lake Erie in 2002 was reversed yesterday by the Sixth District Court of Appeals because one of the jurors was hearing impaired and could not hear a 911 tape offered as evidence in the case.
Scott Speer, 43, of Fairlawn, Ohio, was sentenced to four years in prison Oct. 31, 2007, after he was convicted of aggravated vehicular homicide and involuntary manslaughter in the death of James Barnett, 40, of Barberton, Ohio, who was described as a friend of Speer's.
Speer was acquitted of aggravated murder and murder.
In the 11-page decision, the appellate court ruled the Ottawa County Common Pleas Court erred by failing to disqualify a hearing-impaired juror for just cause. In overturning the conviction, the appellate court returned the case to Ottawa County for readjudication.
The hearing-impaired juror, who did not read sign language, told the court she could only understand what someone said if she read the person's lips.
"There is no way to determine whether she was aware every time someone was speaking. As a result, it is unknown whether the juror received all the testimony," the opinion said. "Even more troubling in this case, however, is the problem represented by the 911 tape which was played for the jury."
During closing arguments, the prosecution asked the jury to consider Speer's demeanor on the 911 tape.
The tape was played to provide evidence of whether Speer showed signs of physical impairment, slurred or hesitant speech, lack of good judgment, or total disregard for another's safety, or evidence of his state of mind and sincerity in his search for Mr. Barnett.
"To evaluate the tape as evidence and determine its value in establishing the elements of the offenses, the jury had to listen to the appellant's speech patterns, the inflections in his voice, the pauses in conversations, and many other audio clues that would only be meaningful if actually heard," the opinion said.
Speer's attorney, Bradley Davis Barbin of Columbus, said this case represents the importance of jurors in the criminal process.
"You need to have people that can fully and competently do their job," Mr. Barbin said. "If they can't hear the 911 tape that is critical to that case, you shouldn't put them on the jury."
Mr. Barnett was riding in Speer's speedboat Aug. 6, 2002, near Catawba Island. His body was found in the lake the next day.
Speer told authorities he and Mr. Barnett were returning from Put-in-Bay when Mr. Barnett fell overboard. Speer said he searched for Mr. Barnett until about 2 a.m. when he called 911.
Ottawa County Prosecutor Mark Mulligan said investigators believe Speer pushed Mr. Barnett overboard.