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Prosecution in ex-Yankee’s DUI manslaughter trial has suffered setbacks

After a parade of witnesses in ex-Yankee Jim Leyritz’s DUI manslaughter trial, the state’s case may have begun to unravel.

One week into the trial, jurors have learned that the victim was just as drunk as Leyritz; that Leyritz’s passenger saw the traffic signal turn yellow, but not red, before they drove into the intersection and that though Leyritz smelled of alcohol, he did not seem drunk at the crash site.

Prosecutor Stefanie Newman had promised in opening statements that two eyewitnesses — a bystander on the street and Leyritz’s passenger — would testify that Leyritz ran the red light. But on the witness stand, their testimony wasn’t that definitive.

Proceedings are scheduled to resume at 10 a.m. Monday. The state could rest its case as early as Tuesday.

Central to the prosecution’s case is whether Leyritz, 46, of Davie ran the light and caused the crash that killed Fredia Ann Veitch, 30, a Plantation mother of two.

The impact of the Dec. 28, 2007, collision at Southwest Seventh Avenue and Second Street in Fort Lauderdale sent Veitch’s SUV careening into a pole and catapulted her into the roadway.

Jurors do not know that Veitch was not wearing a seatbelt or that she was receiving cell phone calls and text messages in the minutes leading up to the crash — a potential cause of distraction.

If convicted, Leyritz faces from four to 15 years in prison.

The first Fort Lauderdale police officer on the scene, Orlando Almanzar, testified that he smelled “a slight odor of alcohol” on Leyritz, who had bloodshot eyes and a flushed face, but that the former Major Leaguer was not stumbling or slurring his words.

“He was nervous, he was upset,” Almanzar said.

A sample of Leyritz’s blood was taken about three hours after the 3:19 a.m. collision. Based upon that sample, a toxicologist has calculated that Leyritz’s blood-alcohol level at the time of the crash was .18 — more than twice Florida’s legal limit of .08.

Veitch also had a .18 blood-alcohol level, a medical examiner testified.

Although Circuit Judge Marc Gold had ruled prior to trial that Veitch’s intoxication was irrelevant, that information ended up coming before the jury after prosecutor Newman failed to object to a series of defense questions about how much Veitch had to drink that night.

Veitch’s friend, Kevin Lane, testified that after work the pair stopped off at a bar in the Himmarshee Arts District where he saw Veitch consume two tequila shots and about three cocktails. Lane said Veitch was out of his sight for about 45 minutes while he barhopped.

“So this was a lady who had several drinks and several [tequila shots] in the time that you saw her and God knows what else from the time you weren’t around?” Leyritz’s defense attorney, David Bogenschutz, asked.

Lane answered, “Yes.”

Even more damaging to the state’s chances for a conviction may have been the testimony of Bruce Barger, Leyritz’s passenger that night.

Barger said he accompanied Leyritz and a group of about six as they celebrated Leyritz’s 44th birthday at two bars. Barger said he saw Leyritz drink, but wasn’t sure how much he consumed and it wasn’t enough to make him worried about taking a ride home with Leyritz.

Barger had told police that he saw the light turn red, but on the witness stand, he said otherwise.

“I don’t remember specifically seeing it red,” Barger testified.

When the light turned from green to yellow, Barger said he noticed that Leyritz “was reaching down to grab something” and he yelled out a warning and tapped Leyritz on the shoulder.

“I knew it was going to be one of those close calls going through an intersection,” Barger said.

Newman did not challenge Barger about his prior statement to police, instead opting to question the traffic-homicide investigator who had interviewed Barger.

The judge ruled that Newman couldn’t do that because Barger himself hadn’t been asked to explain his contradictory statements.

The other prosecution eyewitness, Garth Henry, testified that he was standing on the sidewalk when he saw that Veitch had the green light.

But on cross-examination by Leyritz’s lawyer, Henry came across as less than certain about how close he had been to the intersection, whether he had his eye on the traffic signal before he heard a screech and a bang and precisely how much he drank beforehand.

The state could wind up its case as early as Tuesday after calling experts on DNA, toxicology, traffic signals and accident reconstruction. The defense will then get its turn with a bevy of experts contesting how Leyritz’s blood-alcohol level was calculated and the accident-reconstruction analysis.

A verdict could still be a week or two away.

Tonya Alanez can be reached at tealanez@sunsentinel.com.

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