By summer's end, a federal appeals court will decide whether Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury gets another chance to convict a drunk driver named Diane Mannes of murder.
If Bradbury loses in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals--which he concedes is a good possibility--he said he will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. It would be the first time in Bradbury's 12-year tenure that he took a case to the nation's highest court.
And even if Bradbury prevails on appeal, it will only mean he gets a second chance to prove that Mannes--who struck and killed three young men walking along the Ventura Freeway on March 31, 1989--is guilty of second-degree murder. In the 10 years that California courts have permitted murder convictions for drunk-driving homicides, guilty verdicts have been returned only rarely--and never in Ventura County.
At Mannes' trial in November, 1989, the jury split almost evenly on the murder count. The judge later dismissed the charge, saying the evidence was insufficient for a murder conviction. Since the trial, the key question in the case--was it murder?--has taken a back seat to a more immediate one: Can Mannes be retried for murder?
Three months ago, a federal judge in Los Angeles said no, citing the Bill of Rights' protection against being tried twice for the same offense. Last week, Bradbury appealed that ruling, starting an uphill battle that raises yet another question:
Why is Bradbury--facing budget problems, dubious prospects of success and doubts in his own office--pushing so hard for a murder conviction?
The main reason, Bradbury said, is his strong belief that Mannes is guilty of murder, although he acknowledged that not everyone in his office thinks that the murder case is worth pursuing. "If this is not a murder case, I haven't seen one yet."
Bradbury, who has long been tough on drunk drivers, denied that politics has played a role in his decisions.
"We're not doing anything that we wouldn't do in any murder case," he said.
By any standard, however, People vs. Diane Helen Mannes is not a typical murder case. For one thing, Mannes is accused of murdering three people. Ventura County has not had a triple murder since 1979, when three Los Angeles men were killed in a drug deal gone awry.
What's more, Mannes' victims were not out-of-town drug dealers; two of the three were local youths whose families' grief was widely reported and shared by an outraged public. And Mannes' weapon was not a gun or a knife but a 1984 Ford Bronco.
And prosecutors admit that in the Mannes case, the malice aforethought--that esoteric but essential element for a murder conviction--is less clear-cut than in most murder cases.
"It stretches the limits of the law" to find a drunk driver guilty of murder, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Donald C. Glynn, the prosecutor at Mannes' trial. For a jury to convict, he said, "the law requires your reaction to be, 'That is just outrageous!' If you don't think that, we don't have it."
Both Glynn and Bradbury thought they had it in the Mannes case.
By her own account, Mannes, then a 31-year-old office manager who drank only occasionally, borrowed her boyfriend's car and drove to her father's home in Westlake Village. She intended to confront him over a long-simmering dispute that had recently flared again. She sat in the car, drinking vodka and orange juice to work up her courage. Finally, she knocked on the door.
Nobody answered. Mannes decided to drive back to her home in Somis, about 15 miles away on the other side of the steep Conejo Grade.
Meanwhile, a flat tire forced six young men to abandon their car on the grade and walk to the bottom for help. Witnesses testified that as Mannes descended the grade's broad S curves in the slow lane, she suddenly veered to the left, possibly to avoid the youths' disabled car. A vehicle in the next lane blocked her. She swerved back to the right, grazed the disabled car and then smashed into five of the youths.
Scott Mullins, 20, of Mansfield, Ohio, was dead at the scene. Jacob Boyd, 14, of Camarillo died in a helicopter on the way to the hospital. Joshua Oxenreider, 19, of Camarillo died shortly afterward. Two other youths suffered major injuries.
Mannes' vehicle came to rest upside-down a few hundred yards down the road, the driver hanging by her seat belt. A sticker on her rear bumper seemed chillingly accurate: "I Swerve and Hit People at Random."
Her blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.20%, twice the legal limit at the time. In subsequent days, investigators learned that only 43 hours before the fatal accident, Mannes had been arrested in Tarzana on suspicion of drunk driving with a 0.26% blood-alcohol content, and that she had a drunk-driving conviction in 1983.
At the outset of the trial in November, 1989, Bradbury and his deputies were so confident of a guilty verdict that they filed the charge only as murder, which prevented the jury from finding Mannes guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.