A 46-year-old insurance salesman who crashed his car into a Studio City home last week, killing a 4-year-old girl asleep on a couch, pleaded not guilty Monday to second-degree murder and drunk driving.
At the scene of the fatal crash Wednesday, the driver's primary concern was hiring a lawyer and retrieving his smashed vehicle from police, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said.
"To his question, 'When do I get my car?' we hope that upon his conviction the answer is, '15 years to life,' " Reiner said Monday in announcing the filing of the murder charge. Fifteen years to life in prison is the maximum sentence for second-degree murder.
Attended Office Party
The defendant, James Benjamin Masoner, had attended an office party on Wilshire Boulevard and was driven home against his will by two work associates, who thought him too intoxicated to drive, according to Los Angeles Police Detective Don Bellante.
When the three got to Masoner's street, Bellante said, he refused to point out his home and insisted on driving the last few hundred yards himself.
As the two friends were getting into a second car, Masoner got behind the wheel of his vehicle and sped off. Within seconds, his car jumped the curb and plowed into a neighbor's home in the 3800 block of Broadlawn Drive, police said.
"All the way to his house, he was being uncooperative and belligerent," Reiner said.
Vehicle Barely Missed Brother
Jessica Shaner, 4, was killed when Masoner's 1983 Camaro crashed into the den where she was sleeping. The vehicle came within inches of killing her 10-week-old brother, Morgan, who was asleep in a bassinet in a bedroom, police said.
Tests showed that Masoner's blood alcohol content was .23%, more than twice the level of .10%, at which someone is considered intoxicated, police said.
It was the second time in three months that Reiner has summoned reporters to the Van Nuys courthouse to publicize a drunk-driving murder charge.
The other case involved a motorist who allegedly drove the wrong way on the Ventura Freeway and smashed head-on into a car Dec. 11, killing four people. That case is scheduled for preliminary hearing March 19 in Van Nuys Municipal Court. A third such case is pending trial in Van Nuys Superior Court, prosecutors said.
Reiner acknowledged that murder is more difficult to prove than the usual charge of vehicular manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in state prison. But he pledged that his office will review every killing that results from an alcohol-related crash to determine if the evidence warrants the more serious charge.
"It happens time after sickening time," said Reiner, accompanied by two representatives of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
To prove second-degree murder, Reiner said, prosecutors must show that the driver knew his actions were likely to endanger human life and that he acted with "wanton disregard" for the safety of others.
"In other words, he didn't give a damn," Reiner said.
Reiner said his office has successfully prosecuted four or five drunk-driving murder cases in the past two years.
One factor that prosecutors considered in filing the murder charge against Masoner, Reiner said, was his 1982 conviction for misdemeanor drunk driving in Orange County. Masoner was placed on three years probation in that case.
Claims Brake Failure
Masoner told police after the crash that he had both feet on the brake pedal of his vehicle as he was gliding down the steep street, police said. Deputy Dist. Atty. Larry Diamond said tests of the car are incomplete, but that he does not believe they will reveal any mechanical problems.
Masoner is being held in County Jail in lieu of $50,000 bail. Van Nuys Municipal Court Commissioner Patricia Gorner Schwartz set his preliminary hearing for April 21.