Driving Miss D.A.-isy

A ride-along girlfriend and erroneous testimony taint a DWI squad case

Craig Bellamy was a picture of rectitude and professional duty when he took the witness stand in October 2000. A member the Houston Police DWI Task Force, the young officer displayed steely confidence as he described events that happened six months earlier when he arrested a woman for driving drunk.

In the wee hours of an April morning, the officer reported, he saw 27-year-old Robin Kayem make a wide left turn from Westheimer onto Buffalo Speedway. He said her car strayed into an adjacent lane more than once. Bellamy stopped Kayem near the Southwest Freeway, administered a field sobriety test and arrested her.

During the trial in the county criminal court of Judge Pam Derbyshire, a prosecutor asked Bellamy if the defendant did anything unusual after her arrest.

"Umm, en route to the station, yes. She went to sleep in the patrol car," the officer responded, according to the trial transcript. He later added that such behavior was a sign of intoxication.

Under cross-examination by Kayem's lawyer David Kiatta, the officer repeatedly testified that he took the young woman directly from the scene to the department's Southeast Command Station.

As he fielded queries from both sides, Bellamy seemed to merit the overtime pay that officers get for testifying in court. He was deliberative, calm and unwavering. He also was giving a false picture of events that took place on that April morning.

Bellamy and the woman he portrayed as a drunk, dozing suspect were not alone in the police car. The officer's girlfriend at the time, Assistant Harris County District Attorney Shandon Sherman, was with him on that shift. Bellamy mentioned his friend's presence during the trial. However, he failed to disclose that, with Kayem handcuffed in the back of the patrol car, he and his girlfriend made two detours. Police dispatch tapes proved that Bellamy assisted another officer who had stopped a man apparently under the influence. He also took time out to buy refreshments, Kiatta says.

With all the stopping and going, the trip took well over an hour, Kiatta says. The lawyer is still fuming a year later that Bellamy's garbling of facts could have had grave consequences for a young woman who faced up to six months in the county jail.

"If he doesn't remember [facts], he should have the fortitude to say, 'I don't recall,' and not ad lib…on the stand," Kiatta says. "It's a false statement under oath."

Bellamy, who joined HPD after graduating from Baylor University in 1994, declined to be interviewed by the Houston Press. Sherman says the officer did not have time to extensively prepare for the trial.

"I can tell you the day Craig testified he was in school somewhere. He was pulled out of the school, came to the courthouse, didn't even have time to put his uniform on…and was asked to testify from memory," she says.

But Matt Hennessy, a criminal defense lawyer who was not involved in the case, says that the trial highlights broader concerns about the quality of DWI prosecutions. Hennessy says officers hardly have to be dragged into court as witnesses. Indeed, he says, they seem to have incentive to testify as much as possible since they get paid time and a half for doing so. Hennessy refers to them as "professional witnesses."

"The more DWI charges that get filed, the more potential there is for them to testify and make more money," he says. The police department "needs to remove the appearance of an incentive for getting cases filed in which they ultimately testify."

Police department payroll records show that overtime pay accounted for $23,914 of the $59,725 that Bellamy earned in 1999. The amount of that overtime earned in court is unclear.

Hennessy also finds it disturbing that an officer would not accurately state how long it took to transport a suspect. A person's blood-alcohol level is not the same after an hour as it is at the time of the arrest, he says, pointing out that it could be higher or lower.

"You're either creating evidence that was not there or eliminating it," Hennessy says.

Sherman believes that time was not a factor in that case because she thinks the suspect was clearly intoxicated.

Kayem declined a Breathalyzer test, so the case came down to Kayem's word against Bellamy's. The jury ultimately acquitted the young woman. After the trial, some jurors wondered if the officer's testimony could have been perjury, Kiatta says. He has embarked on a crusade to get authorities to investigate Bellamy's handling of the case.

Last November he filed a police complaint alleging that Bellamy committed perjury. He also expressed disapproval of Bellamy patrolling with his girlfriend.

It is "very unprofessional and would seem contrary to public opinion for a police officer to take his date on patrol," he wrote.

Sherman says there was nothing untoward about riding along with her then-boyfriend.

"I worked days, he worked nights. It certainly afforded me the opportunity to spend more time with him," she says. Sherman adds that prosecutors frequently ride with DWI officers and that her experiences on patrol with Bellamy made her "great at trying [DWI] cases."

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