Former Braden River High School football coach Josh Hunter's guilty verdict upheld

MANATEE -- An appeals court has upheld a jury's verdict finding former Braden River High School football coach Josh Hunter guilty of DUI manslaughter in the death of his best friend and assistant coach Doug Garrity.

On April 11, the Second District Court of Appeals in Lakeland affirmed the May 2010 verdict without issuing a final mandate, said Art Jackman, felony division chief and lead prosecutor on the Hunter case.

"The ruling is not final until we get a final mandate from the court," Jackman said today. "That mandate could take up to two months we are told."

During that time, Hunter, who has been out of jail on bond for nearly two years, can challenge the higher court's ruling, Jackman said.

"The defendant has a right within 15 days to file a notice of rehearing," Jackman said.

Jackman said when the state has the mandate it will ask a judge to revoke Hunter's bond.

Jackman said he was pleased with the higher court ruling.

"I was confident the deci

sion was going to be affirmed on appeal," Jackman said.

A call to Brett McIntosh, Hunter's defense attorney, for a reaction to the ruling and to see if a motion for rehearing has been filed was not immediately returned.

On March 21, 2009, Hunter was driving his Ford 150 truck on the State Road 681 on-ramp to Interstate 75 when he veered off the road, then over-corrected after striking a reflector pole, causing the truck to overturn. Garrity was thrown from the vehicle.

Hunter faces a minimum of four years in prison. The maximum possible sentence is 15 years.

Hunter was found guilty after a week-long trial before Circuit Judge Donna Berlin in Sarasota.

The trial was emotional for both the Garrity and Hunter families, who sat together and often wept.

Hunter's brother, James, was sentenced to jail during the trial and later released for refusing to testify against his younger sibling.

Even members of the Garrity family expressed wishes that Hunter not be charged.

"It's a tragic case," Jackman said at the time. "There are no winners or losers here. The message is drunk driving kills."

Jackman, during closing arguments, said Hunter's blood alcohol level was .21 after the crash, nearly three times the legal limit in Florida. Toxicology experts estimated that Hunter had as many as 14 alcoholic beverages before the crash.

"This man needs to be held responsible and accountable for his actions," Jackman said.

McIntosh said during trial that the state failed to prove Hunter was driving on the night of the crash.

A Florida Highway Patrol trooper testified that a passenger in the truck, Matt Braselton, identified Hunter as the driver on the night of the crash. But Braselton testified during the trial that he couldn't remember who was driving. McIntosh objected to the testimony as hearsay, but Berlin allowed the jury to hear it.

McIntosh hoped the appeals court would agree with him that Braselton's account could not be relied on because he admitted to being "highly intoxicated" that night, coupled with the trauma of surviving a violent crash.

"Everything was crushed, people flying around, things flying, things moving around in ways that are unimaginable," McIntosh said in court.

McIntosh also attacked the blood-alcohol test, presenting his own toxicology expert who stated that if Hunter had a .21 level, he would have been visibly drunk. Instead, law enforcement said he smelled of alcohol and had watery eyes, but appeared normal, McIntosh said. He then told the jury that a mistake could have been made in the handling of Hunter's blood.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686.