Lewis trial: more doubts than the DWI

John Lewis, long-suspended Schenectady cop who was arrested six times in just 21 months — Is he guil

John Lewis, long-suspended Schenectady cop who was arrested six times in just 21 months — Is he guilty or not guilty of driving while intoxicated on Dec. 27, 2008?

I was in Schenectady City Court the last two days, listening to trial testimony and trying to figure that out, and here’s what I came away with:

At the disarming hour of approximately 4:30 a.m. on that date, Lewis crashed his SUV into a parked vehicle on Eastern Avenue after traveling some 120 feet with two wheels up over the curb.

He was off duty, of course, since at the time he had already been suspended for about eight months.

Within 10 minutes or so, two rookie cops arrived on the scene, in response to a 911 call placed by neighbors.

One of the rookies, Daniel Bean by name, approached Lewis, who was standing beside his badly smashed-up SUV, and asked him, “Sir, were you driving?” He said that at first he did not recognize Lewis, never having served with him and knowing his face only from television news reports.

Lewis muttered, “Shut up” — this was recorded on Bean’s portable microphone — and then he muttered further, “Are you miked?” after which nothing more is heard on the recording. It just goes dead, which Bean was at a loss to explain. Darn thing should have kept working but didn’t.

Bean says he called back to the police station and waited for a more senior officer to come. That turned out to be only another young patrolman, Mike McLaughlin, since there were no higher ranking officers on duty at the time.

Soon after McLaughlin arrived, and apparently with his approval, Bean and his partner, Matthew Overocker, gave Lewis a lift home! Without investigating anything and without citing him for any offense.

They didn’t even turn their car’s video camera on for the ride. Lewis “instructed us we didn’t need it,” Bean testified, which I thought was revealing, having in mind that Lewis was a 15-year veteran and a tough-looking customer to boot. He gave the orders.

Bean testified in court that he saw no signs of Lewis being drunk.

Well, pretty soon the department brass got notified — Capt. Michael Wager, Assistant Chiefs Patrick McGuire and Mike Seber, Chief Mark Chaires, and they wanted Lewis out of his house.

So officers went back and started banging on his door, but Lewis did not come out. Finally on the third try he appeared. This was about 6 a.m. Wager testified that Lewis was clearly drunk. “He gave me like a hug,” Wager said, and he could smell the alcohol, besides which he noted slurred speech, sluggish movements and so forth.

So they took Lewis to the police station, where he refused what’s known as a field sobriety test, and according to McGuire, claimed his obvious drunkeness was the result of his having knocked back a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey after he got home, to relieve his stress from the accident.

Lewis’ mother, with whom he lived, claimed in court she had found the remains of a 12-pack of beer in his room after the command officers took him away.

So there were two versions of how he could have gotten himself drunk after the accident, and you could take your pick.

In any event, “You’re outside the two-hour limit; you got nothin’,” he told the chiefs with a smirk, McGuire testified.

The next step was to the State Police barracks in Princetown, where Lewis finally took a Breathalyzer test and scored an impressive 0.21, more than double the legal limit. That was at 8:18 a.m., in other words, nearly four hours after the accident, though within two hours of when he was arrested.

An ex-girlfriend with animus toward Lewis testified that he had told her, “Of course I was drunk,” and she said he been drinking at a bar on North Broadway, in addition to the one beer that the owner of Geppetto’s bar allowed Lewis had consumed there.

So: Was he drunk at the time of the accident? For me, fantasizing myself into the role of City Court Judge Guido Loyola, I can see it either way.

The only plausible explanation of the accident is that he was drunk as a skunk. That accounts for the wild off-street driving, the late hour (just after closing time for Schenectady bars), his hurry to get away from the scene, and his continued inebriation two, three and four hours later.

But is it proved beyond a reasonable doubt? I really don’t see how. It’s proved that he was drunk later, but that he was drunk earlier is only an inference. A very reasonable and even compelling inference, in my view, but still something short of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Maybe he really did down 12 cans of beer or a bottle of Jack Daniels when he got home at 5 a.m.

A more interesting question to me is why the two rookie cops gave him a pass. Why did they drive him home?

The Police Department is supposedly investigating this question, but it’s been more than a year now.

Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett says there is a reason.

“It’s normal to let the criminal case go first,” he told me yesterday. “Then we get the benefit of the testimony.”

Indeed, an internal affairs officer for the Police Department was present in court for Bean’s testimony, taking notes.

But there is something else Bennett is concerned about, and that is running a police department without the ability to order supervisory officers like sergeants and lieutenants to work.

That’s what happened the night of Lewis’ escapade. It was all Indians and no chiefs. Why?

Because Schenectady cops get so much time off you can never tell who will show up on a given shift. And when you don’t have enough, all you can do is offer them the opportunity to come in on overtime. You can’t force them.

Sometimes there are no takers. So you’ve got maybe a dozen young and experienced patrolmen on duty, from midnight to 8 a.m., when a lot of guys don’t like to work, and no one to supervise them.

Give them an encounter with a tough 15-year veteran like Lewis who tells them what to do, and they meekly follow.

That’s what I guess happened. Lewis told Bean to turn off his microphone and camera and give him a ride home, and Bean and his partner complied.

Anyway, Judge Loyola said he’ll back Wednesday with a verdict on the DWI charge, so we won’t be in suspense for long, at least as far as that part of it goes.

Categories: Opinion

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