URBANA – A Fithian teen who said she had to drive drunk to avoid being sexually assaulted by co-workers was acquitted of driving under the influence Wednesday by a Champaign County jury.
Erin Davis, 19, was charged with driving with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or greater and driving under the influence, both misdemeanors, following a Sept. 17, 2006, incident in which she struck two parked cars on South Neil Street in Champaign, heavily damaged her own car, then kept driving into Campustown where University of Illinois police spotted her.
Davis' "necessity" defense – that she had to commit the crime to avoid a greater injury and that she was without blame in developing the conduct – is rarely seen in criminal cases and hardly ever in DUI traffic cases.
"It's a legitimate defense and it made sense in this case," said Carol Dison, the Urbana attorney representing Davis.
Assistant Champaign County state's attorneys Katie Pugh and Stephanie Weber said that defense was a first for both of them in a traffic case.
While saying he was "extremely skeptical" of the defense, Judge Richard Klaus allowed the jury to consider it, ruling that Dison had presented sufficient evidence to support it. The jury deliberated about five hours.
According to testimony in the two-day trial, Davis had been a newsroom intern at WICD in Champaign for about three weeks on Sept. 16, 2006. After getting off work about 11 p.m. that day, she went to the apartment of Emily Carlson, 24, a WICD reporter, in the 800 block of Oakland Avenue in Urbana. Davis said Carlson purchased and served her two drinks of orange juice and vodka and two additional shots of vodka.
Davis said Carlson also called fellow newsroom employee and anchor Kent Ninomiya, 41, to come to the apartment. Davis said Carlson, who did not testify, wanted both of them to have sex with Ninomiya.
Carlson and Ninomiya, who previously worked together in Minnesota, are no longer employed at the station.
Ninomiya testified he thought he was coming to Carlson's apartment so the three of them could go out to eat. He denied any inappropriate touching of Davis, who turned her back to him during most of his testimony and cried intermittently throughout the trial.
Davis testified that although she wasn't interested in sex with Ninomiya because of his age, she said Carlson tried to "guilt trip" her into it by saying that Ninomiya would only have sex with Carlson if he also had it with Davis.
Neither Carlson nor Ninomiya was charged with any crime regarding Davis.
Davis testified that after Ninomiya showed up, she brought up, at Carlson's urging, the subject of him having sex with them. She said Ninomiya asked if what happened there, stayed there. She said he rubbed her neck and shoulders but that she pushed him away.
She went to the bathroom and when she came out, she said, Carlson and Ninomiya led her to Carlson's bedroom.
"They didn't seem like they would take no for an answer," she said.
Davis said in spite of telling Ninomiya she didn't want to have sex, he removed her shirt and bra and fondled her.
Davis said she then hurriedly left the room, putting her shirt on as she went, intending to leave. She said Carlson followed her, telling her she couldn't leave.
Asked why she left, Davis said: "I thought they were going to make me have sex with them. I don't remember a thing the minute I walk out of the apartment. I had to get out of there," she said.
However, Davis said she did remember being hit with an air bag.
Dison and Pugh agreed that Davis hit two parked cars in the parking lot of Merry Ann's Diner, 1510 S. Neil Street, C, miles from Carlson's apartment off Cunningham Avenue in Urbana, then continued north with air bags deployed and driving on three flat tires. At 12:50 a.m., UI police officer Barb Robbins, who was at the corner of Sixth and Green streets, spotted the damaged car eastbound on Green. She found it minutes later in a parking garage at Fifth and Daniel streets with Davis outside it on her cell phone.
Robbins quickly determined Davis was intoxicated, arrested her and took her to the hospital for a blood draw after Davis vomited in the back of the squad car. Davis' blood-alcohol level was 0.20 percent, the attorneys agreed.
Another officer, Robbins said, was alerted to the hit-and-run at Merry Ann's and linked Davis to that.
Arguing to the nine-woman, three-man jury, Pugh said the trial wasn't about a sex crime and that even if they believed Davis, they should reject her belief that she felt she had to drive to escape her situation.
"Whatever danger she felt was there ... ended when she walked out of that apartment. She wasn't chased. No one was trying to drag her back in. She could have knocked on a neighbor's door and said 'I need help.' She could have gotten in the car, locked the doors and honked her horn until people came to her. She had a cell phone and could have called her parents or friends," Pugh said.
Acknowledging that her client voluntarily drank, Dison argued that did not make her responsible for what happened that prompted her to flee the apartment. She argued that Carlson and Ninomiya had "planned" the encounter, that Carlson "plied" Davis with the 90-proof vodka, and that Carlson "pressured" her into participating in something she didn't want to.
"She should not be a defendant in this case. She is a victim," Dison argued.