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Drunken woman who fled attacker acquitted of DWI charges

Donna Powell of Northport was found not guilty

Donna Powell of Northport was found not guilty of DWI after she testified she drove drunk only to escape a man who was about to attack her. Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

A Nassau County judge Friday acquitted a Northport woman who said she only drove drunk to escape a man who was trying to attack her.

Nassau County Judge George Peck found Donna Powell, 48, not guilty of felony drunken driving and other charges. He found her guilty only of driving the wrong way on a one-way street, which is a traffic infraction.

Powell, who admitted driving last October with more than twice the legal limit of alcohol in her system, said she was forced to get behind the wheel drunk after a man she had left a bar with took her to a remote area and attacked her.

The man, Long Island Jewish Medical Center executive director John Steel, denied in court that he had attacked Powell, though he admitted that he is addicted to crack, and said he took Powell to buy and then smoke the drug.

Powell did not tell police that Steel had attacked her when she was arrested, a fact that prosecutors said was a major hole in her story. Powell's lawyer, James Pascarella of Huntington, said it is common for sexual assault victims to delay reporting attacks.

Steel, who is on leave from his job and undergoing a drug-treatment program, was given immunity from prosecution in the case and testified Thursday.

Brian Mulligan, a spokesman for Long Island Jewish Medical Center, which is part of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, would not comment on Steel's job status except to say that it's a "personnel issue."

Powell's unusual defense relied upon a portion of New York law that says a person is justified in committing a crime if by doing so she avoids a harm worse than the one she causes.

When Powell said Steel attacked her, the burden of proof shifted to prosecutors, lawyers and experts said. That is, the prosecutors needed to prove that the attack didn't happen, they said.

Peck said the facts of the case were not black and white, but that he found Powell's testimony credible, and said it was corroborated by phone records and other evidence. He said he found that there were inconsistencies in Steel's testimony.

Since prosecutors did not prove that the attack didn't happen, Peck said, he was "not convinced" of Powell's guilt.

Richard Klein, a criminal law professor at Touro Law Center, said to find Powell not guilty of drunken driving, Peck must have decided that the harm of being assaulted was worse than the harm of drunken driving.

Peck's decision is final and cannot be appealed.

Pascarella said he found Steel's story hard to believe.

"Even with immunity, why would he admit to sexual assault?" Pascarella said.

Prosecutor Maureen McCormack said she was deeply disappointed.

"If she [Powell] can make this unsubstantiated claim and get off, it makes you concerned about what other claims will be made by other defendants in the future," she said. "They would have every reason to be emboldened by this decision."

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