Drunken canoeing trial ends with jury adrift

Posted May 17, 1997, at 4:42 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 14, 2011, at 10:58 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A jury swayed back and forth Wednesday as they tried to determine whether the bowman in a canoe was truly relevant to its operation in a drunken canoeing trial in Penobscot County Superior Court.

The state claimed that Derek Hamel was tipsy as he paddled his way down the Kenduskeag Stream during the annual canoe race in 1996.

On TV’s “People’s Court,” it might have been called the case of the alleged “pickled paddler.”

Hamel’s attorney, Julio DeSanctis, spent much of the day trying to convince the jury that his client wasn’t really relevant at all. He called another local attorney, Hilary Billings, to the stand to testify as an “expert” canoeist.

Billings has been racing canoes for 15 years and has an impressive array of canoeing awards, but teetered a bit on the witness stand, first saying that a bowman didn’t contribute much more than power to the operation, but acknowledging that they could be critically important in some maneuvers.

“Do they just sit there like a potted plant?” asked a rather exasperated Jim Diehl of the Penobscot County District Attorney’s Office.

Billings thought that was a bit of an understatement.

But the sternman is really the “captain” said Billings, which by the way is his position in the canoe. It’s the sternman who pilots and navigates the canoe along its path.

Hamel’s sternman happened to be his cousin, Todd Hamel, who already pleaded guilty to operating a watercraft while under the influence of intoxicating liquor and paid a fine. He testified Wednesday that he had probably 6, 7, 8 or maybe 9 beers before he met up with the wardens who lined the stream banks looking for tipsy canoeists on that cold April day.

He didn’t have any idea how many beers his cousin had. Derek Hamel said he had had only two. He had a blood-alcohol level of .09. The legal limit is .08.

The trial started Wednesday morning and lasted the entire day. Three game wardens spent the whole day sequestered outside the courtroom. Other scheduled court proceedings were delayed as the trial continued.

Finally, at nearly 4 p.m., the case went to the jury for deliberations.

But like a poor paddling team, the jurors had a difficult time getting in sync and deliberations swayed off course.

Not only were they unable to determine whether Derek Hamel was guilty of operating the canoe while intoxicated, they also had difficulty deciding whether or not they could decide.

After deliberating for about three hours, they returned to the courtroom to say they were hopelessly deadlocked — unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

Was Hamel really drunk? Was he, as the bowman, really “operating” the canoe at all?

DeSanctis requested that the court clerk poll the jurors individually to ensure they were all in agreement that they were truly, 100 percent deadlocked.

Yes, said juror No. 1. Yes, said juror No. 2. Yes, said juror No. 3.

I’m not so sure, said juror No. 4.

OK, said Justice Andrew Mead, go back and try again.

So back into the jury room they went.

What happened to juror No. 4′s popularity rating when the group got back behind closed doors is not known.

But in a short while they returned.

“Guilty,” said the jury forewoman.

Let’s poll the jury again, said DeSanctis.

Guilty, said juror No. 1. I’m not so sure, said juror No. 2.

And the group filed back into the corner room to try again.

Finally, at 8:30 p.m., they returned to say they were once again hopelessly deadlocked.

This time they all agreed and after nearly 12 hours, Mead declared a mistrial and jurors and Derek Hamel went home.

And whether the bowman in a canoe is truly relevant to its operation has yet to be resolved.

The Penobscot County District Attorney’s Office is unsure whether they will try Hamel again.

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