SANTA CLARITA — Seeking to demonstrate remorse and possibly receive a reduced sentence, a Canyon High School senior pleaded guilty Tuesday to causing the deaths of four people in a high-speed car crash, including three of his teenage passengers.
Appearing in Newhall Superior Court in an orange jail jumpsuit, Marcus Christian Lellan, 18, pleaded guilty to four felony counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and one misdemeanor count of reckless driving involving bodily injury.
Looking directly at Newhall Superior Court Judge Alan S. Rosenfield, Lellan quietly replied "yes" when asked if he understood he would be waiving his right to trial and right against self-incrimination.
The lanky youth glanced briefly at his family and friends in the courtroom audience before being led away in handcuffs. He faces up to 10 1/2 years in prison, but could receive probation--a prospect that prosecutors said they would oppose.
By pleading guilty "he wants to face the music and take responsibility" for the crash, said his great-uncle, Bjorn Pedersen of West Hills, who sat behind Lellan's parents and 16-year-old sister in the courtroom. "He feels it's his fault. He's saying he's sorry to the people out there."
"It's his decision" to plead guilty, said the youth's mother, Gitte Lellan. "He feels it would be too painful [otherwise] to the other families and his own family."
Lellan also faces possible deportation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service because he is not a U.S. citizen. He holds permanent-resident status, having emigrated from Denmark with his family in 1989.
On Feb. 17, Lellan drove an Acura that swerved out of control, flipped over and landed on top of an oncoming Mustang. Authorities said they thought that Lellan might have been driving as fast as 100 mph.
Three of Lellan's passengers--Dominic Whit Ianozzi, 16, and brothers Timothy Lee Renolds, 17, and Daniel Richard Renolds, 15--died instantly. A fourth passenger, Daniel Weber, 16, suffered minor injuries. Also killed was the driver of the other car, Rodney David Adams, 45, of Santa Clarita.
"Mr. Lellan believed it would be the best to accept his guilt," said his lawyer, James E. Blatt outside the court after the hearing. "It was a difficult decision, but it was a decision to spare the victims' families from pain and suffering."
Blatt acknowledged that the guilty plea was also "the best for the client."
"He has a tremendous amount of remorse and regret," Blatt said. "The court has a wide range of sentencing options."
Prosecutors said they believed Lellan was taking an appropriate step. "It's always good to take responsibility for your actions at an early state if you're trying to reduce your sentence," Deputy Dist. Atty. David Jacobs said. But under the circumstances, he added, it would be "inappropriate to have probation."
"He should go to prison," Jacobs said.
Not only had Lellan received two speeding tickets in the last year, he also tested positive for marijuana use shortly after the accident, Jacobs said. "They were not particularly high levels, but it wasn't enough for us to say he definitely wasn't under the influence."
Lellan's speeding citations also meant the youth was "on notice" that he was engaged in a "dangerous and illegal action" when he began speeding again the night of Feb. 17, Jacobs added.
Both times Lellan was cited, he was driving on Soledad Canyon Road, where the crash occurred.
Last October he received a ticket for driving 67 mph in a 50-mph zone, said Deputy Mark Slater, a traffic investigator at the Santa Clarita station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
In January, Lellan received another citation, for driving 64 mph in a 40-mph area, Slater said. The deputy who pulled him over also ticketed another driver in a car that had been speeding alongside Lellan and wrote notes indicating that they had been racing each other.
Lellan could have been charged with a misdemeanor for the "speeding contest," Slater said. By giving Lellan only a verbal warning, he added, "the deputy at the time gave him a tremendous break."
On Monday, Blatt said in an interview that Lellan would plead "no contest" to the charges. But subsequently, Lellan decided "to accept guilt in this matter, not to mince words with a no-contest [plea]," Blatt said.
The wording change is largely symbolic, for guilty pleas and no-contest pleas to felony charges carry the same consequences, lawyers for both sides said.
A guilty plea could affect civil litigation arising out of the misdemeanor count, but that prospect in this case is unlikely, Blatt said.
His sentencing date will be set on April 25 in Department H in San Fernando Superior Court.