MOUNT CARROLL – Darrel J. Sweeney appears to have been drunk when he backed over and killed a 78-year-woman with his SUV.
Whether that’s enough to convict him of aggravated DUI resulting in death, a crime that carries 3 to 7 years in prison, will be up to a jury to decide.
Sweeney, 65, of Savanna, pleaded not guilty Friday in Carroll County Court to the felony charge, to two counts of misdemeanor DUI and to a traffic charge of improper backing.
He is accused of killing Judy Kness, owner of Kness Trucking in Chadwick, around 8 p.m. Sept. 13. Kness was standing behind his SUV, waiting for a ride, when Sweeney backed up, twice, pinning her underneath. She died at the scene.
Sweeney, who is free after posting $3,000 of his $30,000 bond, is represented by Thomas Nack, who argued that Sweeney should not be charged with the felony because there is no evidence that his being drunk was the proximate cause of “this tragic, tragic accident.”
Savanna Police Lt. Nick Meeker was the first officer to respond to the call, interviewed Sweeney and administered a BAC and field sobriety tests, which he said Sweeney failed.
According to Meeker’s testimony at Friday’s probable cause hearing, Sweeney told him:
Sweeney had a meal and three or four drinks at Manny’s Pizza. His SUV was parked alongside Manny’s on Adams Street, and as he went to back out of his angled parking space, he noticed he was very close to the vehicle parked next to him.
He told Meeker that he was concentrating on trying not to strike that vehicle when he started backing out, and so was looking to the side, not at his rear view mirror.
He “met some resistance,” pulled forward and started backing out again, and again met some resistance. He was about to back up a third time when he saw and heard passersby yelling at him to stop, and he got out of the car. Kness was underneath.
Meeker, who had taken Sweeney to the station for the interview, testified that he could smell alcohol on his breath. He asked permission then gave Sweeney three field sobriety tests, which included walking and turning and standing on one leg.
Sweeney displayed symptoms of intoxication, and Meeker gave him a breath test.
The test show a blood alcohol content of .103, Meeker testified.
The legal limit is .08.
Despite those findings, the state has no direct evidence that supports an aggravated DUI involving death charge, Nack said.
Kness was standing behind Sweeney’s vehicle, Sweeney was not speeding or driving erratically, and he stopped and got out of his car when passersby alerted him, Nack noted.
It is “pure speculation” on the state’s part “that alcohol had anything to do with this accident.”
Nonetheless, Judge John “Jerry” Kane concluded that there was enough probable cause for the case to proceed.
Sweeney, who has requested a jury trial, has a status hearing Nov. 15.