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Expert Sets off Legal Debate With Opinion that Ship Could Have Sunk

March 6, 1990

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ The Exxon Valdez would have sunk in just over an hour if Joseph Hazelwood had moved it off a reef after it ran aground, an expert witness said over defense protests the testimony was irrelevant.

Lawyers for the skipper argued that the grounded tanker was immovable after it hit a reef last March 24 and there was no risk it would capsize.

Superior Court Judge Karl Johnstone, while indicating he agreed the tanker was solidly stuck, allowed the testimony Monday. He said jurors had already heard too much about the skipper’s alleged efforts to move the ship to be told now to disregard it.

William Vorus, a professor of naval architecture at the University of Michigan, gave jurors an elaborate account of a computer simulation of the grounding, as well as a scholarly dissertation on how a ship stays afloat.

The witness, who said his engineering firm was being paid $40,000 by the state for its work on the prosecution, calculated the Exxon Valdez would have capsized 75 minutes after grounding if it had been freed from the reef in 10 minutes.

Hazelwood, 43, is charged with criminal mischief, reckless endangerment, operating a vessel while intoxicated and negligent discharge of oil. The seaman from Huntington, N.Y., faces up to 7 1/4 years in prison and $61,000 in fines.

The Exxon Valdez spilled nearly 11 million gallons of Alaska crude, devastating the rich population of wildlife in Prince William Sound and coating hundreds of miles of rocky shore with black goo in the nation’s worst oil spill.

The most serious charge against Hazelwood, criminal mischief, involves acting recklessly in disregarding a known risk.

Deputy District Attorney Brent Cole has focused on Hazelwood’s behavior after the grounding to prove this charge with witnesses saying the skipper ordered the engines turned on and the ship pointed forward.

But in a brief filed with the judge Monday, defense attorney Dick Madson argued that there was no risk that the ship would come off the reef or capsize and that Hazelwood could not have disregarded a risk that didn’t exist.

Johnstone said testimony from prosecution witnesses has convinced him that the ship was hard aground on the reef and could not be moved off by its own power.

″My inclination now is that physical impossibility is not evidence of the crime of criminal mischief,″ the judge said in a hearing outside the jury’s presence. He said he would make a final ruling later.

But he refused to block prosecution testimony on the issue after Cole argued that Hazelwood’s actions could relate to whether his judgment was impaired by alcohol.

The Alaska statute covering criminal mischief says that a person may act recklessly if he is unaware of a risk because of intoxication. Cole did not explain how that provision would operate if no risk was involved.

Defense attorney Michael Chalos objected that Vorus’ testimony was ″sheer speculation,″ but the judge overruled him.

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