Trial of Oil Tanker Skipper Opens; Liability Test on Alaska Spill Seen : Courts: Hazelwood is the only person accused of criminal responsibility in one of the nation's worst environmental disasters.


The only person accused of criminal responsibility for the nation's worst oil spill goes on trial today in this city, where polls show that 70% of the populace believes he is "guilty for sure" of some wrongdoing.

Attorneys for Joseph Hazelwood, who was captain of the tanker Exxon Valdez when it ran aground in Prince William Sound in March, 1989, call the trial "a classic political prosecution" aimed at enhancing Alaska's claims for civil damages against Exxon, Hazelwood's former employer.

The state maintains that Hazelwood, 43, acted recklessly by drinking and by turning the ship's controls over to an unqualified officer before the accident. The fired skipper also is charged with one felony count of criminal mischief in the second degree and three misdemeanor violations: driving while intoxicated, reckless endangerment and negligent discharge of oil. If convicted, he could face up to seven years in prison and $86,000 in fines.

The state has a lot of money at stake in its lawsuits against Exxon, "otherwise this would be treated like any other grounding--like an accident," said Michael Chalos, a New York attorney and former maritime academy classmate of Hazelwood's.

He also said that Hazelwood is being blamed for the "botched containment and inadequate cleanup" of the oil, so he is being held responsible for the effect of the spill, not just the grounding.

But Assistant Dist. Atty. Mary Anne Henry said that Hazelwood was indicted "for what he did--causing that spill" and the damage that resulted.

"If a traffic accident kills someone, the result makes it more than a simple accident. A reckless driver may be liable for assault or manslaughter," she said.

According to poll results published in the Anchorage Times as jury selection began last week, Hazelwood is better known here than most of the state's leading political figures.

In an editorial on the eve of trial, the Anchorage Daily News declared him "the man more responsible than any single individual" for the nation's worst oil spill.

In the face of such notoriety, presiding Judge Karl Johnstone declared at the outset that a potential juror's preconceived opinions about Hazelwood would not keep that person from being accepted, so long as the would-be juror could promise to set aside those opinions during deliberations.

"If Oliver North can get a fair trial in Washington, D.C., then Capt. Joseph Hazelwood can get a fair trial in Anchorage," Johnstone said early in the case.

But the difficulty of finding an untainted jury was evident when the first group of potential jurors filed into Johnstone's court last week.

They included a top scientist with Exxon, a cousin of one of the assistant prosecutors, fishermen (who, as a group, were hit especially hard by the spill), oil industry contractors and the husband of a woman employed by a key witness for the state.

They were not seated, but all 12 of those who were picked for panel said they knew about the spill, and many said they had read that Hazelwood may have been drinking. The seven women and five men include sport fishermen, a man whose sister was killed by a drunk driver 15 years ago and an insurance executive who said that her business had profited from the spill.

Even Judge Johnstone has potential conflicts of interest. He earlier disclosed that he holds a commercial fishing license. After he was assigned the case, he went on a weeklong hunting trip to Scotland with his friend, Douglas Baily, Alaska's attorney general, who ultimately supervises the Hazelwood prosecutors.

Defense attorneys, however, did not challenge Johnstone and declined to comment about the judge, who has been a somewhat controversial figure in Anchorage.

For example, the Alaska Judicial Council, in its last rating of Johnstone, called him "not qualified" for the bench. That 1988 rating was based, in part, on a survey of fellow judges and lawyers who gave Johnstone an unprecedented low integrity rating.

Johnstone, who criticized the survey, won election that year anyway. He refused to be interviewed by The Times last week.

The case against Hazelwood hinges on issues of recklessness.

Lead prosecutor Brent Cole is expected to argue that the skipper's performance was impaired by drinking before the tanker sailed, that Hazelwood left the bridge in the hands of an unqualified third mate, and that, after the grounding, Hazelwood attempted to free the tanker from the reef, a maneuver that could have sunk the ship.

National Transportation Safety Board hearings already have established that Hazelwood had a blood alcohol level of 0.06% when the test was administered 10 hours after the grounding. That level exceeds the Coast Guard limit of 0.04% but is below the state's drunk-driving threshold of 0.10%.

State experts are expected to testify, however, that Hazelwood's blood-alcohol reading could have been higher than 0.22% if he had been tested just after the ship struck the reef.

Defense attorneys Chalos and Dick Madson of Fairbanks have challenged as unfair and unreliable such theories of drunkenness based on the delayed sobriety test. Members of the crew, oil terminal guards and a port pilot all testified during federal accident hearings last spring that Hazelwood showed no sign of alcohol impairment when the tanker left Valdez.

Even if prosecutors cannot prove that Hazelwood was drunk, they may contend that it was reckless for Hazelwood to consume alcohol before sailing.

Hazelwood's defense could hinge on his attorneys' claims that the accident would not have happened if his orders had been followed.

According to transportation board testimony, the Exxon Valdez had left the outbound shipping lane to avoid icebergs shortly before Hazelwood turned over the bridge to Third Mate Gregory T. Cousins and helmsman Robert Kagan and went below.

Before he left the bridge, however, Hazelwood ordered Cousins to turn back toward the shipping lane at a point off Busby Island light. In testimony before the transportation board, it was clear that the turn was started late.

The board's subsequent computer simulations of the accident indicate that if Hazelwood's command had been followed, the tanker would have missed Bligh Reef by about 1.5 miles.

Whether Cousins was qualified to navigate the huge tanker in the confines of Prince William Sound also will be contested. He did not have a pilot's certificate for those waters, but transportation board evidence showed there was substantial confusion as to whether the Coast Guard had previously waived that requirement. Defense lawyers also will argue that Hazelwood did not try to move the ship off the reef, an action they agree would have been disastrous. Instead, they say, he tried to keep the vessel securely on the reef, out of concern that a rising tide would dislodge the damaged ship.

Transcripts of Hazelwood's radio conversations with the Coast Guard an hour after the grounding raise questions about that version of events:

"We're working our way off the reef. . . . We're in pretty good shape right now, stability-wise, and, ah, trying to extract her off the shoal here," the captain radioed Coast Guard Cmdr. Steve McCall.

Transportation board documents show that Hazelwood put the tanker through several rudder changes but ran the engines forward--never in reverse.

McCall has since told Life magazine that he believes Hazelwood "was trying to assure himself the vessel was hard aground. He didn't do anything reckless." The accused skipper's attorneys embrace that view with enthusiasm:

"You can't drive off a reef going forward. If he was trying to extricate the vessel, he would have put the engines in reverse to get back to the deep water he came from," Chalos said.

"Most experts know Capt. Hazelwood's actions after the grounding probably saved the vessel."

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