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Jury Sees Street Where Girl Died as Drunk-Driving Trial Begins

November 20, 1987|GABE FUENTES | Times Staff Writer

A jury walked along the same street Thursday in the Hollywood Hills where authorities say an insurance salesman killed a 4-year-old girl by drunkenly crashing his car into the house where she slept.

The field trip occurred on the first day of the Los Angeles Superior Court trial of James Benjamin Masoner, who was expressionless as he too walked down the hill to the home near Universal City where Jessica Shaner was killed March 4.

Masoner, 47, has pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder, gross vehicular manslaughter and felony drunk driving. He is free on $50,000 bail.

Masoner's lawyer, Thomas M. Byrne, repeated his contention during opening arguments that the accelerator of Masoner's 1983 Camaro stuck, causing him to crash into the home in the 3800 block of Broadlawn Drive.

"It was a runaway car," Byrne said. "The defendant had no intention of going down that hill like that."

Deputy Dist. Atty. John K. Spillane disputed the stuck-accelerator theory. He argued that Masoner had attended a cocktail party on Wilshire Boulevard the night of the accident and that two business associates drove him home against his will.

After the friends dropped Masoner off near his home on Broadlawn Drive, he entered his car and sped back down the hill, away from his home, and crashed into the Shaner house about a block away, Spillane said.

Testimony at Masoner's preliminary hearing disclosed that he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.23% two hours after the crash. A measure of 0.10% is the legal standard for drunkenness in California.

In his opening argument, Spillane noted that Masoner was convicted of drunk driving in Orange County in 1982.

At Spillane's request, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Florence T. Pickard held court Thursday near the cul-de-sac where Masoner's friends reportedly dropped him off. A bailiff pointed up the hill to Masoner's home, and several jurors took notes as he pointed down the hill to the scene of the crash. Pickard adjourned for the day after the bailiff led the jury on a walk down the hill.

Spillane said later that he asked for the outing because the geography of the street is unusual. Broadlawn Drive progresses down the 11% grade from Masoner's home and bends sharply to the right at the Shaner home. Instead of making the turn last March, Masoner's car crashed into the home, killing Jessica as she slept on a sofa.

In June, the Shaner family filed a lawsuit in Burbank Superior Court seeking $15 million in damages from Masoner; the two business associates who drove him home, Daniel Monnin and Thomas Barber; Monnin's employer, Neal Lloyd & Co.; and Allianz Insurance Co., which held the cocktail reception.

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