Man lands 1 year for boat sinking

Backer pleads guilty to assault charge after woman injured on impact

Posted: Friday, April 23, 2004

A former charter boat operator was sentenced to one year in jail Thursday, agreeing he was responsible for putting a woman in a coma last September.

James Backer, 39, had more than twice the legal limit of alcohol in his blood on Sept. 5, 2003, when he sank the Reel Time in Auke Bay after a day with friends. The day changed Brenna Hall's life forever, Juneau District Attorney Patrick Gullufsen told the judge.

Hall was a passenger on the boat when she was injured on impact, according to court documents.

The U.S. Coast Guard also found Backer was not properly licensed, according to court records.

Backer pleaded guilty to second-degree assault. Thursday, Juneau Superior Court Judge Larry Weeks sentenced him to serve five years in jail, with four suspended. He also placed Backer on probation for five years and said he would have the opportunity to work off up to 90 days of his jail time with community service.

Before hearing the sentence, Backer said if there were any way he could trade places with Hall, he would.

"I was wrong," he said. "I'm sorry."

Defense attorney Thomas Nave argued that Backer has done everything he could to make things right since the accident. His client "has lost everything," he added.

Nave said he will give Hall a check today for the undisclosed settlement for the woman's past and future medical expenses.

Hall, who was 19 when she was injured, was in court for Thursday's sentencing with her attorney and family members. She showed no visible signs of her injuries. She declined to speak when Weeks offered her the opportunity, and also declined to discuss the matter with a reporter.

After the accident, she was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle with a head injury, where she spent time in the intensive-care unit. On Sept. 22 she went to the University of Washington Medical Center for rehabilitation.

Backer also faces $49,500 in civil penalties from the Coast Guard, according to court records. Capt. Charles Lancaster, the Alameda, Calif.-based hearing officer in his case, wrote Backer a letter last week outlining his findings and adding that he would give Backer a chance to respond before making a final decision.

In a letter to the judge, Backer said he drank beer on Sept. 5, 2003, before he and the passengers celebrated the catch of a 38-pound king salmon with "very strong black Russians." Blood drawn from him at Bartlett Regional Hospital that night, after he hit the outermost dock at Auke Bay and sank his boat, had an alcohol level of .193 percent, Gullufsen said Thursday. A sample taken later showed his blood-alcohol level at .150 percent, he said.

Directing comments toward Hall and her family, Weeks said things would have been more difficult if Backer had not been more cooperative. He also said he would have to sentence Backer to jail to show others the consequences of drunken boating.

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