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Who Was Really at Wheel in DUI Death?

By Lisa Arthur

  • The Miami Herald
  • April 6, 2003

Tracy Howard Levine has a recurring nightmare: The complicated DUI manslaughter case over her husband's death ends with a Perry Mason-like plot twist and the killer walks free. Ruben Soto, 27, of Homestead, faces trial on two counts of DUI manslaughter for a December 2001 car wreck that killed Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Steve Levine and his passenger.

Shortly after the charges were filed, Soto's half-brother - who was riding with him the night of the crash - woke up from a coma. He said he was driving the pickup that investigators say barreled through a stop sign at Southwest 256th Street and Krome Avenue and rammed into Levine's vintage cherry-red Corvette.

Now, the prosecutor who took over the case in January is taking extra steps to be certain the right brother has been charged.

Sherri Collins, regarded as the Monroe County state attorney's office ace on DUI cases, asked a judge in February to give her more time to investigate the crash and postpone the trial, scheduled for that month.

``At this point, I haven't had enough time to be certain we've charged the right person,'' Collins said. Broward Circuit Judge Ana Gardiner set the trial date for September. The case is being heard by Gardiner and prosecuted by Monroe County to avoid a conflict of interest for Steve Levine's fellow judges and prosecutors in Miami-Dade.

Levine, who was 47 when he died, had been on the bench since 1986. He left behind two children - a son, now 12, and a daughter, now 14. His passenger, Lourdes Maldonado, was 32. Both died on impact.

The Florida Highway Patrol investigated the crash and reconstructed the accident. The impact was so great that the pickup landed on top of some nearby palm trees. Soto was found under the truck, on top of the trees. His half-brother, Jose Hernandez, was found in the back seat.

Neither brother was wearing a seat belt, according to records. The truck did not have an air bag. The brothers had been drinking at a South Dade bar before the accident, according to Soto's lawyer. Prosecutors say Soto registered a .18 blood alcohol level and Hernandez a .22. The limit in Florida is .08.

Soto's lawyer says investigators reached the wrong conclusion about who was behind the wheel. "Ruben didn't own the truck and wasn't driving it. His brother has said he was the one driving. And we have witnesses who saw Ruben get into the passenger side when they left the bar.'' For Tracy Levine, an attorney, the first concern is that prosecutors put the right man on trial.

WIFE'S CONCERN

"Steve started out as a public defender, and he loved being a public defender,'' she said during an interview last week. "He would never want someone who didn't commit a crime to go to jail for it. "What I'm looking for is the person who killed Steve to be punished.''

Then there's her nightmare: Prosecutors take Soto to trial and Hernandez takes the stand and tells the jury he was driving. His testimony creates reasonable doubt and the jury acquits Soto.

Collins, who declined to comment on the case, hopes scientific evidence would cancel out Hernandez's self-incriminating testimony, if he takes the stand. Collins said as far as she knows, Hernandez doesn't have a lawyer representing him. Hernandez could not be reached for comment. Collins told Gardiner she planned to hire a kinetics team - experts who would study the injuries both brothers suffered in the crash and factor in the forces that cause the motion of bodies in such a crash.

DUI lawyers say Collins is doing the responsible thing by taking the extra time to add extra layers of scientific evidence and making certain the right man is charged. If Soto were acquitted, two legal experts predicted prosecutors would likely not try his half-brother. The reason: A prosecutor would have a hard time arguing the case against Hernandez after saying the evidence had pointed to Soto in the first trial.

2ND TRIAL UNLIKELY

"I think if there is an acquittal in the first brother's trial, the prosecutors would pretty much be done,'' said Robert Reiff, a defense attorney with a substantial DUI practice and a former prosecutor. "I think prosecutors are doing the ethical thing by trying to determine with scientific evidence who was driving.''

Another attorney who specializes in DUI defenses, agreed. "It would never come to a second trial,'' he said. ``If all the scientific evidence points to one brother, that's who they will prosecute. If they lose, they lose.'' He predicted, though, that even if Hernandez takes the stand in Soto's trial and incriminates himself, jurors won't buy it. "Jurors don't often believe family members. Jurors say, `A brother will lie to save his brother.' ''

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