A jury found barge pilot Warren Luetke not guilty of criminally-negligent homicide after a week-long trial. The verdict was announced Monday morning after just about an hour of deliberation in the courtroom of Judge Barry Steelman.
In his closing statement, defense attorney Sam Hudson told the jury, "Ladies and gentlemen, accidents happen. Every accident should not result in criminal prosecution."
He said, "The only evidence that has been introduced is that the boaters on the river weren't paying attention.
Captain Luetke was charged with two counts of criminally negligent homicide, reckless operation of a boat, and failure to render aid after the deaths of two men in a fishing boat struck by the barge he was piloting at the time. He was found innocent of all charges.
Attorney Hudson mentioned that one witness had equated the situation to "somebody getting hit by a walking horse while walking in the middle of a field."
Both deceased men, Richard Wilkey and Timothy Spidle, were found to have BACs of around .2, over twice the legal limit to operate a vehicle.
Attorney Hudson said, "I submit to you their intoxication may have been the reason that they drowned." He pointed out that while it was clear the barge struck the boat, there was no evidence such as bodily injuries to indicate the barge actually struck the men.
In his testimony, Captain Luetke said the only possible explanation he could think of was that the boat could have been in the blind spot of the barge before he took control after the shift change.
Attorney Hudson said, "That's a possibility, ladies and gentlemen, and that's reasonable doubt."
He also pointed out that Captain Will Stevens, the pilot of the Bearcat before the defendant took the wheel, testified that almost any other tugboat pilot would have done the same things.
However, prosecutor Cameron Williams said, "It is not a defense that the negligent conduct of the deceased may also be a cause of the death."
He said, "I was brought up that you take responsibility for your actions. There are some people that are not brought up that way, and they'll say or do anything to avoid that responsibility."
Prosecutor Williams said, "It's not a defense that they were intoxicated to the defendant's own criminal negligence...They have paid for those actions. They have paid the ultimate price. They paid for them with their lives."
He said that Chris Wilkey having a "junky boat" and "not maintaining a proper lookout" does not absolve the defendant for his own negligence.
He said, "The defense says there's not a single shred of evidence he was not paying attention. That's not true; he struck the boat. If he would have been paying attention, he would have seen that boat and he would have avoided it."