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Vandross Trial Jury Selection Starts

December 09, 1986|JAN KLUNDER | Times Staff Writer

Singer Luther Vandross' current album may be No. 2 on the soul chart and No. 21 on the pop chart, but none of the 40 prospective jurors who will decide his vehicular manslaughter trial in Van Nuys Municipal Court knew his name.

Describing Vandross as "an entertainer of some fame," Judge Aviva K. Bobb questioned the potential jurors Monday concerning their ability to set aside his celebrity during the misdemeanor trial. Asked to raise a hand if they knew of the 35-year-old Vandross, none responded.

"I don't even know what type of singing this gentleman does," one potential juror told the court.

Vandross, a rhythm and blues vocalist, is charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving in connection with a Jan. 12 collision in Studio City that killed one of his passengers and injured four other people.

Vandross was nominated for a Grammy Award in January, 1986, for his song, "The Night I Fell in Love." His current hit album is entitled "Give Me the Reason."

2-Week Trial Expected

Jury selection began Monday and is expected to conclude today. The trial is expected to take about two weeks. If convicted of the two offenses, Vandross could be sentenced to up to 1 1/2 years in County Jail and a $2,000 fine.

The trial originally was scheduled for July but was postponed at the request of the defense to allow additional time for preparation. Vandross is represented by an attorney from New York and an attorney from San Francisco, with another San Francisco attorney in court to help.

Deputy City Atty. John C. Rocke said outside the courtroom that the prosecution will attempt to prove that Vandross failed to use proper care while driving his Mercedes-Benz northbound on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, between Mulholland Drive and Ventura Boulevard.

But defense attorney Charles Breyer responded, "Mr. Vandross is innocent. He was not drinking; he was not using drugs, and he was not violating the law."

Police allege that Vandross' vehicle was traveling 50 m.p.h. in a 35 m.p.h. zone, crossed the center line, turned sideways and crashed into two oncoming cars about 12:15 p.m.

Lawrence Salvemini, 27, of West Hollywood, described by defense attorneys as Vandross' best friend, died in the collision. Another passenger in Vandross' car and three people in the other two vehicles were injured.

The district attorney's office decided not to file felony charges, concluding that there was insufficient evidence to prove gross negligence, the legal standard for felony vehicular manslaughter. Under the misdemeanor charges, prosecutors only have to prove that he was reckless.

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