Drugged or drunk?

A young woman went out partying and ended up getting 40 years for DUI manslaughter. Was she just drunk -- or did someone slip her a mickey?

Published August 30, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

Bounded by two rows of towering chain-link fences edged top and bottom with rolls of razor wire, the drab cement-block buildings of rural Oklahoma's Mabel Bassett Correctional Center are a far cry from the colorful family entertainment complexes Emily Dowdy helped design as a young architect. Outside, the temperature climbs to nearly 100 degrees. Inside 33-year-old Dowdy, who shares a 6-by-8-foot cell with a roommate, huddles over the remnants of a Power Bar. At 5-foot-8 and 120 pounds, she's down some 40 pounds from her pre-prison weight.

She doesn't remember the May 22, 1999, accident that landed her here, broke her neck (resulting in the partial paralysis of her right arm) and took the life of 20-year-old Ryan Brewer, the son of an Oklahoma City police captain. An array of factors suggest Dowdy was surreptitiously drugged with gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) that night, sexually assaulted and sent on her way. She says she has no recollection of plowing into Brewer's car, killing him almost instantly. DUI manslaughter charges followed for Dowdy, who was ultimately convicted and sent to Mabel Bassett to serve her sentence.

A few weeks prior to the deadly crash, Dowdy had completed her junior year at the University of Oklahoma's College of Architecture. That Saturday night, Dowdy and a group of colleagues from the hotel where she worked part-time had plans to go out. By 8 p.m., when everyone had bailed except a new employee named Katie Hillin, Dowdy stuck with the program. She borrowed her roommate's sandals, pulled on a black top and the underwear that was to go missing that night, tied a wraparound skirt around her waist and then drove to Hillin's apartment to pick her up around 10 p.m. Dowdy was there long enough for Hillin to grab her coat, offer Dowdy a drink -- which she declined -- and lock up her apartment.

Shortly after 11 p.m., following a quick ATM stop, the two arrived at the Crosswinds Club, a tiny spot complete with disco ball and confetti machine that was known for cranking tunes like "I Will Survive," one of Dowdy's favorites. As usual, the place was packed. Hillin reached the bar first and asked Dowdy what she wanted to drink. The crowd was shoulder-to-shoulder as Hillin handed Dowdy her order -- a cranberry juice and vodka mix known as a Cape Codder -- plus something extra, one of the shots Hillin had decided to get for herself and her new friend.

Dowdy asked Hillin what she'd given her and learned it was a shot of Jägermeister. Grimacing, Dowdy swallowed the shot, her first drink of the evening. The two then stepped onto the nearby dance floor, drinks in hand. It wasn't long before Dowdy recalls "communicating" with a guy dancing nearby. "It was so loud, I remember sort of screaming at each other," she says. She can't recall the specifics of their conversation. "It was just the usual, where are you from, what do you do?" But she does remember the man's face, especially his "strange, wide-set, kind of buggy" eyes. "I have a photograph in my head, even though it's been seven years, it's etched in there." She later worked with an artist to create a sketch -- which her attorney John Coyle never bothered to use at trial -- and swears she would recognize him today.

The next thing Dowdy knew Hillin was racing to the bathroom, violently ill. Based on Hillin's symptoms Dowdy's expert witnesses believe both women were dosed with GHB, which can affect people differently.

Somewhere before midnight, Dowdy and Hillin left the club. Dowdy recalls the bug-eyed man from the dance floor sticking close by as the two made their exit. "He knew Katie was sick, and I assumed he was helping make sure she got to the car OK." The narrow staircase leading from the now defunct Crosswinds Club was treacherous; on previous visits to the club, Dowdy had seen tipsy patrons slip and fall. As she navigated the steps on that night she says, "I never remember feeling even remotely buzzed." But she did recall the man trailing her as she headed downstairs.

Dowdy unlocked her car and Hillin climbed into the passenger seat as the man waited on the sidewalk, about 10 feet away. Hillin insisted she would be OK if she rested for a while. She urged Dowdy to "go back up, dance and have a good time." Dowdy recalls feeling strange about Hillin's request. "Why would I leave her in the car? I can't imagine it -- she'd just been vomiting and for me to leave her seems really weird." Shutting the car door was the last thing Dowdy remembers. "It's like a curtain came down," she says.

Around 1:30 a.m., police received a report of an intoxicated woman throwing up in the Crosswinds lot -- Hillin. They arrived on the scene -- Dowdy had vanished -- and booked Hillin into detox at 2 a.m. Responding officer Kevin Tucker testified that Hillin told him Dowdy had left with a guy. The bartender doesn't recall seeing Dowdy reenter the club. She next resurfaced at 3:28 a.m., driving west in Highway 240's eastbound lane, 20 miles from the Crosswinds Club and nowhere along her route home. A passing motorist called 911. Oscar Ramirez, who had pulled over to check his oil on the side of the highway, saw Dowdy's car whiz by a few miles later. Within minutes he heard the explosive head-on crash that ended Ryan Brewer's life.

Ramirez saw flames coming from Dowdy's car. Grabbing his buddy, who had been dozing in the passenger seat, the men raced toward the wreck and arrived in time to pull Dowdy, no longer wearing underwear according to Ramirez's trial testimony, out through her car window. It was too late to save Brewer, who was pinned in his car and pronounced dead at the scene.

Following the accident, Dowdy's first memory was awakening in the intensive care unit, her head restrained in a halo, a device used to immobilize patients with neck injuries. "I felt like I was caged, I couldn't move my right arm and had no idea what had happened." In severe pain from the accident, Dowdy believes her more life-threatening injuries could have contributed to her failure to detect any physical sensations of sexual assault.

Dowdy's mother, Nancy Jackson, waited a few days, until her daughter had stabilized, to tell her the whole story. "I remember being in shock, freaking out, just crying and getting really upset to the point where my mom had to get the nurse to bring me a sedative."

"We considered having Emily undergo hypnosis to try to remember, but learned that with GHB-induced amnesia, you never get your memory back," says Jackson. Though Dowdy insists she has never blacked out after drinking, she can recall a similar feeling after being put to sleep for surgery. In fact, GHB was first researched for use as a surgical anesthetic, but was found to be too volatile.

Prosecutors and Brewer's family say Dowdy's memory loss is simply the convenient excuse of an unrepentant "party girl." But two of the nation's top GHB experts find her amnesia and other symptoms completely consistent with involuntary intoxication at the hands of a rapist who drugged and assaulted Dowdy, and then let her get behind the wheel.

Indirect evidence supports Dowdy's theory: her sudden amnesia preceded by memories of a man trailing her out of a dance club, her missing underwear, and a blood clot in her urethra that suggests possible sexual assault. Still, no conclusive scientific evidence was collected. Police and medical personnel, untrained in handling GHB cases, failed to properly investigate the accident. No blood test for GHB was done until it was too late (the drug typically leaves the bloodstream after four hours). Dowdy's urine wasn't tested for presence of GHB. Her car wasn't processed. At the hospital, no rape exam was performed and Dowdy's clothes were destroyed. Making matters worse, Dowdy's blood alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit, despite her memory of just a couple of drinks. But GHB drugging victims commonly test positive for alcohol. "Rapists know that if they can get a high enough level of alcohol in someone, the cops won't look any further," says Trinka Porrata, a former Los Angeles police detective who educates law enforcement nationwide on GHB. "Unfortunately, this happens all too often in these cases -- I don't fault the officers for their initial investigation; it's a sheer lack of training," she adds.

Still, emotions were running high in Oklahoma City's criminal justice community: The son of one of their own had been killed. Mark Henrickson, Dowdy's current appeals attorney, believes the victim's identity influenced the handling of the case. "I think the prosecutors were certainly more motivated than usual," he says. Motivation is one thing, misconduct and favoritism are another. Dowdy has had three trials. Two days into her first in 2000, the judge was forced to declare a mistrial after the prosecutor improperly sent a police officer to his chambers to attack Dowdy's planned defense of involuntary intoxication. During her second trial in 2001, jurors, who sentenced Dowdy to 25 years, never heard a word about her possible drugging. Judge Susan Caswell, who was reversed on appeal, had improperly barred any testimony on GHB. Caswell, a former prosecutor, is married to a police officer who works on the same force as the victim's father.

Caswell also presided over Dowdy's third trial in 2004. This time John Coyle, Dowdy's trial lawyer, was allowed to raise the GHB defense. But he has since admitted in court papers that he did not adequately defend Dowdy during the trial partly because he felt "bullied and intimidated" by the prosecutors' misconduct, which went unregulated by the judge. Under oath, Coyle testified that, "What [Caswell] let the prosecutors do ... culminated in the most unfair trial that I've been involved in in my 31 years as a lawyer." In front of the jury, prosecutors Connie Smotherman and Christy Reid-Miller repeatedly made baseless accusations that Dowdy was a drunk and a liar, badgered and demeaned her witnesses, and manipulated witnesses into giving false testimony. The result was a jury who deemed Dowdy a remorseless party girl in desperate need of a wakeup call. It came in the form of a 40-year sentence that far exceeds the norm, especially for a woman who had never before been charged with DUI or any other crime.

Still, Dowdy may have had a chance if Coyle had done his job. Jurors' unwillingness to buy her defense is directly related to his failure -- for whatever reasons -- in that regard. Deborah Zvocek, a GHB expert who testified on Dowdy's behalf, recalls Coyle's "absolute lack of trial prep." Prior to trial, Zvocek had repeatedly requested that Coyle show her the initial report of the paramedic who responded to the accident. But she never saw it until the day of trial, during the paramedic's testimony. "The paramedic portrayed Emily as uncooperative, hostile and reeking of alcohol. Yet the [report] shows she was comatose and makes no mention of alcohol." Despite this glaring inconsistency, Zvocek says Coyle did only a "half-assed cross" after quickly reviewing the report. Porrata recalls that Coyle "didn't lay any [pre-trial] groundwork, then, during the trial, he just sat back and quit." One of Coyle's most blatant errors was his failure to call a newly discovered witness who came forward during trial: an Oklahoma City attorney who alleges she and a friend were drugged at the same club as Dowdy, then raped, five months before Dowdy's accident. It was a bombshell since prosecutors had insisted GHB had never been a problem at the club.

In a move that is rare in non-death penalty cases, Oklahoma's Criminal Appeals Court held an evidentiary hearing to review Dowdy's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel -- claims that are among the numerous issues her attorney has raised on appeal. A decision could come any day. The possible outcomes: a new trial, an affirmation of the verdict, or a reduction of her sentence. The victim's family and prosecutors believe Dowdy should remain behind bars and are adamantly opposed to a retrial. "It would be really difficult for us," says Capt. David Brewer, Ryan's father. "Every time we go back it gets harder."

Meanwhile, two more women have surfaced who believe they were drugged and raped within a few miles of the Crosswinds Club seven months after Dowdy's accident. The women were involved in a nearly fatal one-car collision and reported their suspicions to Oklahoma City police. Police presented the evidence, which included three different semen stains found in one alleged victim's underwear and the fact that the three suspects had suddenly quit their jobs and left school, to the Oklahoma District Attorney's Office in early 2001. Yet the district attorney declined to press charges (and failed to return calls seeking comment).

At this stage, it's impossible to prove that Dowdy was or was not given GHB. And it's impossible to know which drinks may have been dosed or by whom. "I think Emily's case was the perfect storm," says Porrata. "The first responders weren't trained to spot a GHB drugging, the prosecutors were determined to get this girl come hell or high water, the judge was biased and Emily's lawyer just gave up. This is the worst-case scenario of what I deal with on a daily basis."

For Dowdy, who tries to be "cautiously optimistic" as she awaits word on her appeal, the past seven years have been a lesson in managed expectations. "Another inmate who used to be a stylist cuts my hair with those third-grade scissors where you literally have to saw on the same piece 10 times," Dowdy says. "In here, finding a paper clip is a big deal because if you bend it a certain way you can hang your robe from it when you take a shower." A stick of gum is a forbidden delicacy, instant oatmeal passes for health food: Everything is relative now but clearing her name and living in freedom once more. "The landscape changes the perspective," says Dowdy. "That was something I learned in architecture school."

By Adriana Gardella

Adriana Gardella, a former prosecutor, is a freelance journalist and television commentator.

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