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DUI manslaughter charge puts Stallworth's career in jeopardy

A day after New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress received good news with an adjournment of his trial, another NFL wide receiver received terrible legal news. The Cleveland Browns' Donte Stallworth has been charged by Florida authorities with DUI manslaughter. If convicted, Stallworth would face a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, although mitigating circumstances would likely lead to a much shorter sentence.

The charge stems from an accident on the morning of March 14, 2009, when a Bentley that Stallworth was driving struck and killed 59-year-old Mario Reyes, a pedestrian who was walking in the far left lane of a six-lane highway in hopes of catching a bus to work.

According to reports, Reyes violated traffic laws by walking on the highway instead of using a crosswalk. Stallworth, who purportedly tried to warn Reyes by flashing his headlights, also appears to be at fault. His blood alcohol content was 0.12, exceeding 0.08, the maximum allowed under Florida law. He was also reportedly speeding, driving approximately 50 miles per hour in a 40-mph zone.

Stallworth has repeatedly apologized for the accident and expressed sorrow. Nonetheless, Florida law is clear. A driver whose blood alcohol content exceeds the legal limit and whose operation of a vehicle caused or contributed to a pedestrian's death will be convicted of DUI manslaughter.

Stallworth could defend himself in several ways. He could assert, for instance, that he followed traffic laws in spite of his impairment. To bolster that argument, Stallworth could reiterate his claim that he flashed his headlights at Reyes in an attempted warning. Stallworth might also dispute the speeding allegation by highlighting that no police radar captured his speed, as it was instead estimated after the accident. In addition, Stallworth could attack how officers tested his blood alcohol content, hoping to cast doubt on the negative results. As prosecutors would need to prove the charges "beyond a reasonable doubt," any doubt placed in the jurors' minds could enable Stallworth to prevail.

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Unfortunately for Stallworth, a very recent modification in Florida law works against him. On February 26, 2009, the Supreme Court of Florida approved changes in jury instructions for DUI manslaughter. These changes diminish defendants' chances for escaping a DUI conviction by having otherwise complied with traffic laws. As stated, the revised instructions would only require prosecutors to show that Stallworth's blood alcohol content exceeded 0.08 and that he caused or contributed to Reyes' death as a result of driving the Bentley. As a result, even if Stallworth drove reasonably except for his inebriation, the new wording of the jury instructions suggests that he would still be convicted.

Aside from newly approved jury instructions, prosecutors probably feel confident in the facts. For instance, they might ask why Stallworth thought that he had enough time to flash his lights at Reyes -- presumably so that Reyes would jump out of the way -- but not enough time to hit the brakes and swerve away. It is unclear whether swerving the car may have endangered other persons, but prosecutors could argue that Stallworth's inebriated state contributed to poor judgment.

If convicted, Stallworth's contrition and his status as a first-time offender would be taken into consideration in sentencing. Nonetheless, he would likely face a prison sentence. Statistics available on the Florida Department of Corrections' website indicate that more than 85 percent of defendants convicted on DUI manslaughter charges are incarcerated for a prison term.

Stallworth, who will turn 29 in November, would likely struggle to resume an NFL career after serving several years in prison. In addition, he would not earn income while in prison, even if the Browns elected to hold onto his contract for salary cap purposes (as the Falcons did with Michael Vick after his conviction): pursuant to the NFL's personnel conduct policy, commissioner Roger Goodell would be poised to suspend Stallworth indefinitely following a conviction.

Stallworth's legal woes won't end with criminal law. Expect Reyes' family to consider bringing a wrongful death lawsuit against him under Florida tort law. As Florida employs a comparative negligence system, Reyes' responsibility for his own death -- e.g., failing to use the crosswalk -- would reduce any monetary judgment for Reyes' relatives.