POMONA — A Pomona Superior Court judge this week overturned two felony convictions in a freeway shooting case involving a driver who waved a gun at another motorist, then handed the weapon to a passenger who fired five shots into the other vehicle.
In dismissing the convictions, Judge Glenn M. Pfau ruled that prejudicial statements by the prosecutor had led a jury to convict Angelo Sirigos, 21, of assault with a deadly weapon and firing into an occupied vehicle.
No one was injured in the March, 1987, shooting, which occurred in rush-hour traffic on the Foothill Freeway in San Dimas. Sirigos was the only defendant in the case because the driver of the other car, Jerry Bright, 26, of Pomona, was unable to identify the gunman in the back seat.
Pfau let stand Sirigos' convictions for illegally carrying a firearm in a vehicle and brandishing a gun in a threatening manner, both misdemeanors. Pfau sentenced Sirigos to two three-month jail terms, both suspended, and placed him on two years probation.
Legal Standard Set
The judge found that Deputy District Atty. Nicholas C. Rini had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Sirigos was guilty of aiding and abetting a criminal under the legal standard that had been established for the case.
Defense attorney Basil Lambros had argued that when Sirigos handed the gun to his passenger, he had no idea the man intended to fire the weapon.
Rini disagreed strenuously with Pfau's ruling, arguing that he had followed established case law, which, he said, holds that a defendant is guilty of aiding and abetting a criminal if he could "reasonably foresee" that his actions would facilitate an illegal act.
"He is equally culpable for this crime as the actual shooter," Rini said.
The judge reminded Rini that he had instructed both attorneys early in the trial that the legal standards applicable to the case required the prosecution to prove that Sirigos intended his passenger to fire the gun.
"You had no prerogative, no alternative, but to follow the law as I settled it for you," Pfau told the prosecutor.
Rini responded by asking the judge why, if he believed the prosecution was guilty of misconduct, he had not declared a mistrial when the case went to the jury in March.
Pfau snapped back that Rini's method of prosecution and arguments to the jury had bothered him since the verdict was announced.
"For two months or whatever it was, I burned over what you did," Pfau shouted at Rini. "Every time you said this man belongs in jail, I've had a private thought that of the two of you, you're the one who should be in jail . . . for trying to send this man to prison for a crime he did not commit."
Several times during Tuesday's sentencing hearing, Rini accused the judge of having predetermined Sirigos' innocence on the felony charges before the jury had returned its verdict.
"You have not listened to the people at any point in this case," Rini told the judge.
"I've heard enough from you," Pfau responded. "Sit down!"
Shocked at Exchange
Lambros said he was shocked by the heated exchange between the prosecutor and the judge.
"I've never heard that kind of repartee in court in all the years I've practiced," Lambros said. "It's unfortunate."
After the hearing, Rini attacked the judge's decision as capricious and said he will appeal the ruling.
The circumstances that led to the shooting began when one vehicle cut in front of the other as they attempted to enter the freeway from San Dimas Avenue.
According to the prosecution, Sirigos, angry at Bright for cutting him off, veered menacingly into Bright's lane. Bright attempted to evade Sirigos' truck by speeding up and slowing down, but Sirigos kept pace with him, continuing to drive in a threatening manner, the prosecutor maintained.
Sirigos picked up a gun from under the seat of his dual-cab pickup truck, waved the gun at Bright, then handed it to a passenger in the back seat, who fired through the open window, Rini said.
Sirigos was arrested after Bright reported the incident to the police.
The defense offered a similar account of the incident, except that it cast Bright as the aggressor. According to Lambros, Sirigos drew the weapon to "scare off" Bright and to protect his four passengers, including two young children.
"Who is nuts enough to start a gunfight when there are two little kids in the car?" Lambros said. He added that Sirigos, who owned a restaurant at the time of the shooting, had been advised by a police officer to carry a handgun after he was robbed twice while transporting cash from his business.
Rini described Sirigos, the son of a restaurateur with large real estate holdings, as a privileged young man with no concern for others. "He thinks because he's rich and owns his own business that he can carry a gun and use it whenever anyone makes him angry."
The prosecutor said that if Sirigos were a Latino gang member behind the wheel during a drive-by shooting, he would have been considered as guilty as the person who pulled the trigger. Lambros said Rini's statements were in poor taste.
Lambros praised the judge's ruling, saying no other verdict was reasonable.
"There was no evidence in this case that the driver had any idea what the guy in the back seat was going to do," Lambros said. "Possibly the district attorney doesn't have the experience to cope with this kind of situation."