WESTMINSTER — In the retrial of a young man charged with drunkenly killing a woman in a car accident that was captured on a dramatic videotape, the defense attorney Wednesday blamed the fatal outcome on the victim for acting "like a traffic cop."
But the prosecutor countered that the defendant's drinking and driving made him "an accident waiting to happen."
The comments came during closing arguments in the highly publicized case of Danny David Ornelas, accused of speeding down a Newport Beach alley and killing a mother of three who was trying to slow him down. The jury began deliberations in the case Wednesday.
The Sept. 1, 1988, death of Debbie Killelea, 37, sparked a public outcry against drunk driving and prompted renewed calls for the placement of speed bumps and stop signs in certain well-traveled alleys. Killelea herself had appealed to the city of Newport Beach to pursue ways of slowing down traffic in the alleys around her Balboa Peninsula neighborhood.
The prosecution contends that Ornelas and two friends were drinking 151-proof rum and strong malt liquor at the beach and that Ornelas then went joy-riding in a friend's car despite a blood-alcohol level of 0.18--more than twice the current legal limit. Authorities estimate he was speeding at up to 45 m.p.h. in the 15 m.p.h. zone when he struck Killelea.
Ornelas, 21, of Huntington Park, was convicted of grossly negligent vehicular manslaughter two years ago and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but an appellate court overturned the conviction on the grounds that the judge gave the jury improper instructions before its deliberations. Ornelas faces the same charge in his retrial.
Attorneys on both sides acknowledged that Killelea's death was tragic.
At issue, they say, is whether Ornelas was negligently responsible that Labor Day weekend, when Killelea apparently stepped into the road and motioned to Ornelas, upset about the young man's driving.
One of the key pieces of evidence in both trials was a videotape recording of the accident that was unwittingly filmed by a passenger in Ornelas' car. The chilling tape showed the victim trying to run out of the car's way as it bore down on her. Her two young sons are seen in the videotape watching in horror as the car approaches and strikes their mother.
On Wednesday, defense attorney Ralph Bencangey tried to dismiss the effect of his client's drinking, saying that Ornelas "took proper evasive action under very surprising circumstances." Ornelas, he said, swerved and "tried to avoid hitting that person." He added that Ornelas' speeding down the alley was something "a bunch of people have done."
Killelea's actions, on the other hand, were "unforeseen and completely inappropriate under the circumstances," Bencangey maintained.
"The sole proximate cause of the accident was that woman jumping out in front of the car at a moment that it was too late to do anything," Bencangey said. The victim "jumped out in front of the car like a traffic cop," he said.
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Randolph J. Pawloski rejected that argument, saying that the defendant was negligent the moment he sat behind the steering wheel of a vehicle and started to drive after he had been drinking.