Ariz. bishop guilty in traffic death

Jury convicts O'Brien in hit-and-run incident that left jaywalker dead

February 18, 2004|By David Kelly | David Kelly,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PHOENIX - A jury yesterday convicted Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien of leaving the scene of an accident after he killed a jaywalker in June. The 68-year-old bishop, who resigned as head of the Phoenix diocese after the incident, faces up to 3 years and 9 months in prison.

After the verdict was read, O'Brien sat slumped in his seat, staring at the floor for 30 minutes without moving. His family cried quietly in the rows behind him. "We're devastated," said Jeanne Dearing, O'Brien's sister. "He's innocent."

The jury deliberated nearly seven hours over two days before reaching its decision. Speaking after court adjourned yesterday, members of the panel said that the bishop probably had not known he had hit someone with his Buick Park Avenue that night but that he should have stopped to find out. O'Brien told police he had thought he had struck an animal or a rock.

"We focused mostly on whether a reasonable person should have stopped, given the nature of the accident," juror Kay Lapid said.

Sentencing is likely within two months, and O'Brien remains free on $45,000 bond.

Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley said yesterday the conviction was a victory, although a tragic one.

"It's a sad day," he said. "We had to put a bishop on trial for killing a man and failing to stop. But what this says is that no one is above the law, no matter what your status in life is."

Before sentencing, Romley said he would give Judge Stephen Gerst additional evidence showing "the bishop has not been forthcoming in other matters."

Two weeks before the accident, O'Brien headed off obstruction-of-justice charges by signing an immunity deal with Romley, in which he admitted to having protected priests accused of child molestation.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors zeroed in on O'Brien's behavior in the 36 hours after the accident. They said that he had refused to answer the door when police came looking for him, that he had parked his car where no one would see the damaged windshield and that he had been oddly uninterested in what he had hit. This was a man, they said, who called police twice when someone had vandalized his outdoor lights but kept silent after a major accident.

The defense maintained that O'Brien had not known he had hit 6-foot-2, 238-pound Reed and that he had had no legal obligation to stop.

The jury said it focused almost entirely on the moments before and after the accident. O'Brien's car was going 40 mph on Glendale Avenue about 8:30 p.m. when it hit Reed, who was walking in the median strip and was intoxicated.

The key evidence for the jury was the smashed windshield.

"We focused on facts, and the windshield was a fact," Erik Mikkelsen said. "It had significant damage, and that didn't happen by a little bird flying into it."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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