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Defendant's suicide ends criminal case in boating deaths

When an accident occurs due to someone's negligence and people die, there can be no winners. No consequences can ever bring back the lost loved ones or undo the pain of losing them.

At that point, one of the only options is to let due process play out and hope that the guilty party will be convicted in court. But one Florida family has been denied that resolution by a defendant's suicide.

In a Fort Walton Beach courtroom last week, the judge announced that he had "sad and disturbing news" regarding the criminal case about to be presented to the jury. He then added that the defendant -- who had been out of jail on a $120,000 bond ever since his arrest Aug. 19, 2016 -- had taken his own life. Just before dismissing the jury, the judge officially declared a mistrial in the case.

The deceased man was standing trial for his role in an early morning boating accident that killed two people and injured other young adults aboard. One woman's body was never recovered. In all, he faced 14 charges, including double counts of negligent manslaughter/homicide and boating under the influence (BUI), according to the website for the Okaloosa County Clerk of Court.

The mother of one of the victims sobbed audibly in an adjacent room before expressing her sorrow at the unexpected turn of events. She said:

"I was shook to the core of my being. Today is such a sad day for the . . . family. It's a day I have experienced myself. I know what they are going to have to endure."

The prosecution's case had appeared strong throughout the initial two days of testimony. Eyewitnesses on the boat testified the defendant was the driver and had been consuming alcohol prior to crashing his watercraft in Destin's East Pass and striking the eastern jetty.

The spokesperson for the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office (OCSO) stated that police arrived at the defendant's home before 7 a.m. after family members discovered him deceased from a "self-inflicted gunshot wound."

While the defendant appeared to have paid the ultimate price for his alleged negligence, survivors and relatives of the deceased in this and similar cases could still pursue civil justice for the loss of their loved ones.

The Law Offices of John W. Merting, P.A. represents famlies who have lost loved ones in boating accidents.

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