Alcohol Metabolism Spotlighted in ‘Mask’ Trial

By Matt Pitt Dec 1, 2010
SANTA ANA, Calif. -- The second day of the trial regarding the death of Charles “Mask” Lewis Jr. began with a detailed discussion of the physiologic effects and pharmacokinetics of ethyl alcohol.

Deputy District Attorney Jason Baez began the morning by leading Dr. Jennifer Harmon, Senior Forensic Scientist at the Orange County Crime Lab, through a series of questions elucidating the quantitative details of alcohol absorption and metabolism.

Before a nearly empty courtroom, and to a seemingly attentive jury, Harmon testified that the rate of alcohol absorption is affected by multiple factors and is extremely difficult to determine, while the rate of metabolism by the liver is better established. She testified that a naive drinker metabolizes alcohol at the rate of approximately 0.15 percent Blood Alcohol Content per hour, while a veteran drinker eliminates alcohol at twice that rate.

This line of questioning culminated in Harmon drawing a figure for the court in which she described the phenomena of peak BAC, an absorptive phase during which BAC is rising and an elimination phase during which BAC declines. Much of the prosecutions focus lay in clarifying the relationship between the measured BAC -- 0.13 -- of the defendant, Jeffrey David Kirby, at 3 a.m. and what his BAC would have been two hours earlier at the time of the crash.

The testimony was technical and, at times, quite detailed, but Harmon appeared equal to the task. Her mien was not so much that of a witness under direct examination as it was of an instructor teaching material to the jury. The prosecution then asked Harmon to elucidate the cognitive and physical impairments caused by alcohol ingestion. The forensic specialist listed judgment, inhibition, capacity for divided attention tasks, information processing, fine and gross motor skills and level of consciousness as components of motor vehicle driving adversely affected by alcohol.

The defense cross examination of Harmon was low-key, aiming first at clarifying that an individual with a BAC of 0.13 percent at 3 a.m. might possibly have a substantially lower BAC at 1 a.m. Then, the defense used its time with Harmon to highlight the components of the police-administered field sobriety test that Kirby performed successfully.

It seems that the defense is attempting to thread a very narrow needle, suggesting that Kirby was not so intoxicated as to be legally unable to drive but was still sufficiently under the influence of alcohol to be unaware of the accident in which he had been involved and subsequently drove away from.

It appears the technical component of the prosecution’s case has been completed, and now it will turn to witnesses who observed the immediate events surrounding the accident itself.

Matt Pitt is a physician with degrees in biophysics and medicine. He is board-certified in emergency medicine and has post-graduate training in head injuries and multi-system trauma. To ask a question that could be answered in a future article, e-mail him at
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