A 33-year-old roofer was acquitted Thursday of attempted murder in last summer's freeway shooting incident in Costa Mesa which left the victim paralyzed from the neck down. Instead, the jurors found Albert Carroll Morgan of Santa Ana guilty of a lesser charge of attempted voluntary manslaughter.
The jury's decision probably saved Morgan about 15 years in state prison, said his attorney, Paul S. Meyer, who was elated. Morgan now faces about a 10-year sentence instead of a life sentence, Meyer said.
It is the only Orange County prosecution to arise from a rash of freeway shootings in Southern California last summer.
Attempted voluntary manslaughter was the best that the defense had hoped for. That verdict follows the defense theory that the shooting was an impulse, and that Morgan had not planned to kill the victim.
Meyer said later that "my client feels this verdict does show what occurred. . . . It was a rash, impulse shooting. It was a dumb thing to do, but it was not attempted murder."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher P. Kralick was so stunned by the jury's decision he left the courtroom through the judges' hallway to avoid a flock of reporters. After meeting with jurors, Kralick left the jury room ashen-faced. He muttered "No comment" several times as he pushed his way past the reporters."
All the jurors steadfastly refused to discuss their decision.
Morgan was arrested in the July 18, 1987 shooting of Paul Gary Nussbaum, 29, of Rolling Hills Estates. Witnesses say the victim had tried to cut around a lane of stalled traffic at the end of the Costa Mesa Freeway, near the Orange County Fairgrounds, by driving onto the right shoulder.
Nussbaum, a USC graduate who planned a career in social work, has been hospitalized since the shooting. He has no use of his arms and legs and must depend on others to feed him and look after him. Though he testified briefly, he has no memory of the shooting. Nussbaum told the jury that he only remembers a humming in his ears and losing control of his vehicle.
Nussbaum's father, Wilbur, reacted bitterly to the jury's decision.
Lenient rulings like this, he said, "open up the freeways to become shooting galleries."
A Warning Shot
"My son will be a prisoner in his body for the rest of his life and this guy will only have 10 years and time off for good behavior."
Morgan testified that he was only trying to fire a warning shot at Nussbaum's car because he was upset about motorists trying to pass on the right shoulder. But prosecutor Kralick argued that Morgan fired the gun with malice because of an earlier argument with another motorist who passed him on the right.
Morgan fired from a pick-up truck, at a higher level than Nussbaum's station wagon, and shot downward, the bullet striking Nussbaum in the neck.
Superior Court Judge Jean H. Rheinheimer set a March 18 sentencing date and ordered Morgan taken into custody. He had been free on $100,000 bail.
The Nussbaum family was not present for the verdict.
Morgan's parents and his wife, Lonnie Joy Morgan, were in the back of the courtroom clinging to each other as they awaited the verdict.
When Morgan's wife heard the "not guilty" on attempted murder, she winced hard, then bowed her head and cried during the rest of the 20-minute court session.
Defense attorney Meyer had said throughout the trial that he was worried that the public outcry for prosecution of freeway shooters could prevent his client from receiving a fair trial. He was particularly upset when Rheinheimer allowed Nussbaum to use her courtroom after his testimony to discuss his trauma at a news conference.
After Thursday's verdict, Meyer told reporters that he was pleased that the jurors had been able to look past the emotions involved in the case.
"This case was highly charged with emotion; how could you not be affected by the sight of Mr. Nussbaum during his testimony," Meyer said. "When you allow emotion to control, you're back in the Middle Ages. I think this jury's message to the public is that the law works."
Morgan was also found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon and firing at an occupied vehicle, plus use of a firearm and intentional infliction of great bodily harm. But those were counts that the defense had conceded before the trial.
Kralick would not speculate on Morgan's possible maximum prison sentence. Meyer said that the other counts made it confusing but that 10 years was his best estimate.
Meyer asked the judge to allow Morgan to remain free on $100,000 bail until his sentencing, but she refused.
Out Only Twice
Nussbaum, who is in physical therapy at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey, has been out of the hospital only twice--once for a visit to his family and once to testify in court.
At the news conference after his testimony, Nussbaum told reporters that "no one should have to go through what I've gone through."
Morgan said on the witness stand that the incident has been "a nightmare to me" but added that he knew it was a worse nightmare for Nussbaum.