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Driver guilty in fatal DUII

John Bush faces a minimum of six years for manslaughter conviction; previous plea in drunken driving indictment won't have bearing on prison term

A prison sentence will never bring back their son, said Gerald and Joann Baker.

But they can only hope that repeat drunken driver John Patrick Bush of Eagle Point will learn from the mistakes of his past.

In a unanimous jury verdict, Bush was convicted Thursday in Jackson County Circuit Court of second-degree manslaughter in the death of the Bakers' 29-year-old son, Robert. Jurors also found Bush guilty of criminally negligent homicide and driving under the influence, his second drunken driving conviction in 10 years.

Charged with manslaughter in 1995 for the death of 21-year-old David Edward Buchanan of Central Point, Bush served probation after pleading guilty to DUII.

He just doesn't get it, I don't think, said Gerald Baker, 58.

— To me, it's just two lives gone and another one wasted, as far as I'm concerned.

Bush is scheduled today to hear his sentence, a minimum six years and three months in prison. But the Bakers, of San Juan Capistrano, Calif., won't be present. Nor did they see Bush's impassive face Thursday upon hearing the verdict. They said they just couldn't muster up the strength to attend the three-day trial that detailed their son's final hours, spent drinking with friends in Butte Falls.

On April 6, 2003, Baker and Bush left a Butte Falls tavern together around 10:30 p.m. They drank some more beer and a few shots of Jack Daniels at a friend's house before leaving around midnight. An hour later, Bush's 1970 half-ton Ford pickup was found upside down just downhill from a series of sharp curves on Butte Falls Highway.

While admitting that both men were drunk, defense attorney Bob Abel claimed that his client was not the driver. Abel called a Butte Falls man to testify that Baker got into the driver's side of the pickup upon leaving his home on Obenchain Road shortly before the crash. Witnesses for the prosecution said they saw Bush getting into the driver's side of his truck earlier that night.

The defense is trying to place the blame on his buddy, and his buddy isn't here to defend himself, said Allan Smith, deputy district attorney for Jackson County.

That's tragic.

Both Baker's and Bush's head injuries establish their position in the pickup, forensic pathologist James Olson told the jury Thursday. Baker had massive bruising on the top of his head where he struck the windshield and a long cut on the back of his head where it smashed into the truck's rear sliding window.

Hitting the pickup's left side ' between the door and the windshield ' mangled the left side of Bush's face and nearly severed his ear, Olson said. Bush had bruises on his chest and thighs consistent with striking the steering wheel. The doctor rejected Abel's theory that Bush could have sustained such injuries as a passenger.

He would have had to have struck something in the vehicle to just about tear his ear off, Olson said, adding that Bush had dirt and other debris in his wounds that show he was partially ejected from the truck when it rolled over.

Bush had a .18 blood-alcohol level, which was measured several hours after the crash upon his hospitalization, Smith said, reminding jurors that it would have been much higher at the time of the crash (the legal limit for blood-alcohol level in Oregon is .08). Police calculated his truck's speed at 64 mph on a section of highway posted with a suggested 30-mph speed. Bush did not testify in his own defense.

Bush's previous manslaughter indictment for Buchanan's death likely won't have any bearing on his sentence, Smith said, because he wasn't convicted of the crime.

But Thursday's guilty verdict infuses the loss of her son with some meaning, said Connie Buchanan, 56, of Central Point.

Our biggest concern was (Baker's) is the second death, and if something wasn't done, there was going to be another one, she said.

The Buchanans sat through Bush's entire trial in hopes the justice system would prevail where it failed them 11 years ago, they said. A mistake on the part of police prevented prosecutors from taking Bush's previous manslaughter charge to trial, Connie Buchanan said. Officers didn't obtain evidence of Bush's blood-alcohol level when he crashed his Jeep on Obenchain Road with their son inside, she said.

And I don't want any other mother and father to go through what we went through, she said.

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John Bush, left, talks with his attorney, Bob Abel, during his trial for manslaughter Thursday. He was found guilty of killing Robert Baker in a drunken driving accident in April 2003. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell