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Investigation questions help Clearwater woman avoid prison in DUI case

By Stephen Thompson
Published: March 4, 2013 Updated: March 8, 2013 at 09:55 AM
A Clearwater woman was acquitted Friday of charges she caused a motorcyclist’s death while drunk after an expert witness testified that Clearwater police made crucial mistakes in their investigation.Lacy Smithson, 30, was found guilty of drunk driving, not the more serious charge of driving under the influencemanslaughter she faced at trial. Rather than four years in a state prison, she was sentenced to six months in the Pinellas County Jail.When Clearwater police first reported the July 10, 2010, wreck, they said motorcyclist Robert Paonessa was riding a 2010 Bennche Megelli southbound on Missouri Avenue.The motorcycle collided with the 2005 Dodge Durango Smithson was driving. She pulled out in front of him while trying to make a left turn onto Belleair Road in what was essentially a head-on collision, Clearwater police said at the time.Smithson’s blood-alcohol level was 0.15 nearly twice the level at which a driver in Florida is presumed to be legally drunk.During Smithson’s trial last week, Wiley Howell, an expert witness hired by her attorney, told jurors Paonessa was not riding south on Missouri but, rather, came up on Smithson from the right after running a red light on Belleair.Monday, Howell, an accident reconstructionist and former Tampa police sergeant who helped establish that agency’s traffic homicide unit, said he drew his conclusion after considering the damage to the motorcycle and to Paonessa’s body, all of which pointed to an angled collision rather than a straight-on hit.Among other things, Howell looked at paint transfers and the damage to the forks on the motorcycle, the radiator and the gas tank. He also noted that Paonessa suffered substantially more on the left side of his body than on the right, indicating the motorcycle and the Durango collided on the motorcycle’s left side.“It was really obvious how this crash occurred,” Howell said.Howell was highly critical of the investigation by Clearwater police. Among other things, they didn’t take photographs of the damage to the left side of the motorcycle to help determine what happened; they didn’t align the wrecked motorcycle with Smithson’s Durango to match up the damage, and the officer entrusted with doing an accident reconstruction hadn’t been to reconstruction school.“They actually didn’t investigate anything,” Howell said. “It was weird nothing was actually done.“I’ve seen what Clearwater has done in the past,” Howell said. “They usually do a lot more than they did with this one.”Howell’s testimony was crucial in convincing the jury that Smithson didn’t cause the wreck – a finding that’s required in a DUI-manslaughter case, said Deborah Moss, Smithson’s attorney.Before the crash, Smithson was at a party, celebrating her stepfather’s release from the hospital, and shared two pitchers of beer with three other people, Moss said.“That accident didn’t happen the way they originally thought,” Moss said. “Once they made that decision, there was no going back.”Assistant State Attorney Natalie Scruggs, one of the prosecutors in the case, declined to talk about the police department’s investigation. Elizabeth Watts, Clearwater’s public safety spokeswoman, said she would have to read a transcript of the court proceedings before [email protected]