Jury finds Cleary guilty on all counts in I-65 death

2012-09-11T15:55:00Z 2012-09-12T13:10:21Z Jury finds Cleary guilty on all counts in I-65 deathSusan Brown susan.brown@nwi.com (219) 662-5325 nwitimes.com
September 11, 2012 3:55 pm  • 

CROWN POINT | A Lake County jury deliberated for about two hours Tuesday before finding a Valparaiso man guilty of driving drunk and causing the death of a Hebron man fixing a flat tire on Interstate 65.

Jeffery Cleary, 66, was convicted on two felony and three misdemeanor drunken driving charges and found liable on two traffic infractions in the 2010 death of Philip Amsden, 63.

He faces a prison sentence of between six and 20 years in connection with the criminal counts. The infractions carry only fines and court costs.

Amsden, an employee of Boss Truck Stop in Gary, was fixing a flat tire on a semitrailer parked on the shoulder of I-65 south of Ridge Road when Cleary's SUV struck Amsden's pickup, crushing Amsden between his vehicle and the semitrailer.

"We're very happy with the verdict," said Jim Spoon, Amsden's son-in-law, on behalf of his family. "He won't be hurting anyone, anymore."

The verdict came on the ninth day of Cleary's retrial. A jury in December deadlocked 11-1 on the three most serious of seven counts, finding him guilty or liable on the remaining offenses.

Prosecutors immediately announced their intention to retry the Gary-based businessman.

Tuesday's closing arguments by prosecuting and defense attorneys followed Monday's nearly daylong testimony by a Schererville traffic accident reconstruction expert.

Testifying for the defense, Stephan Neese said he used what calculations were available from the accident investigation to determine the exact positions of Amsden's pickup and Cleary's SUV before the collision.

Based on those calculations, Neese used computer-generated graphics to portray the front passenger side of Cleary's SUV striking the back driver's side of Amsden's pickup as Cleary drove to his right to avoid semitrailers in the next lane.

Cleary had based his defense on the passing semitrailers causing him to run out of road to avoid Amsden's pickup and the semitrailer. Attorneys argued the semitrailer and the pickup were parked too closely to the road for Cleary to avoid.

Cleary admitted to drinking much of the day of the accident, which occurred at 11:41 p.m. Nov. 4, 2010, but denied being intoxicated when he left a Hobart bar before getting on the interstate.

"I didn't see anything wrong with my driving home," Cleary testified.

But deputy prosecuting attorney Monica Rogina told jurors Cleary's blood-alcohol content tested at more than twice the legal limit. He failed sobriety tests and his speech was described by responders as slurred.

"Just because you're a functional alcoholic doesn't mean it's OK to drive," she argued.

Rogina ridiculed Neese's graphics as a "cartoon" based on inaccurate data to make the defense's theory work.

Defense attorney Thomas Mullins sought to put the blame on factors outside of Cleary's drinking, the level of which he disputed. He told jurors several witnesses had described Cleary as "sober as a judge" when he left them that night.

"The state wanted him to move over," Mullins said of Cleary's driving as he entered the interstate. "With all the trucks, Jeff couldn't move over," he argued. 

Cleary's sentencing date was set for Nov. 9.

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