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Attorney in Hit-and-Run Death Trial Won’t Say if Defendant Will Testify

Times Staff Writer

An emotional hit-and-run fatality trial begins its defense phase today in Orange County Superior Court in Westminster, and the major question is whether the young defendant will take the witness stand.

Danny David Ornelas, 19, of Huntington Park is charged with second-degree murder. His attorney, Ralph Bencangey, has told the jury that Ornelas was, indeed, the driver of the car that hit a 37-year-old Newport Beach mother on Sept. 1 as she stood with two of her children in an alley behind their Balboa Peninsula home.

But Bencangey has said that he will try to prove this week that Ornelas had no intention of hitting the woman and that he should have been charged with vehicular manslaughter, not murder. Bencangey also will contend that an eerie videotape that shows the woman as she was run down does not prove murder and, in fact, shows that the victim put herself in danger by standing in the middle of the alley.

But Bencangey would not say whether he would put the defendant on the stand, leaving him open to cross-examination by the prosecutor.

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“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Bencangey said last week.

Bencangey noted in his opening statement to the jury last week that a defendant is not required to testify or say anything during a trial--that the burden of proof is on the prosecution.

And Bencangey emphasized that he does not think the videotape proves the prosecution’s case.

The tape was accidentally made by John Lozano, 18, of Huntington Park, a passenger in the fast-moving car being driven by Ornelas. Lozano testified last week that he and Ornelas had been drinking rum and malt liquor during their afternoon at the beach before the fatal incident.

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“I felt a little intoxicated,” Lozano testified. “I felt a little light-headed. . . . I was just looking for anything to film.”

But Lozano added, in his testimony, that he didn’t intend to videotape the sequence in an alley behind East Ocean Boulevard on Balboa Peninsula. It was in that alley, at about 5 p.m. on Sept. 1, that the victim, Debbie Killelea, was struck by the fast-moving car driven by Ornelas.

The brief, blurred videotape made by Lozano shows Killelea in the alley with her two sons, Michael, 10, and Joe, 6. The tape shows her moving near the center of the alley as her sons watch nearby. Then the tape shows Killelea putting her hands on her hips as she looks down the alley at the approaching car.

The tape ends in a blur as the car struck and fatally injured Killelea.

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Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas Goethals ended the prosecution case on Thursday, showing of the tape to the seven-man, five-woman jury. Goethals said that earlier testimony by eyewitnesses proved that Ornelas deliberately aimed the car at Killelea after she made her hands-on-hips sign of disapproval in the alley.

But defense attorney Bencangey disagreed. He said the evidence shows that Ornelas swerved the car in a vain attempt to avoid Killelea after she had walked to the center of the alley.

Bencangey said the testimony of Tim Jessup, a 20-year-old USC student who was walking in the alley that day and saw the incident, proves the defense’s contention that Ornelas was trying to avoid hitting Killelea.

Jessup, in his testimony, said he saw Killelea move toward the center of the alley as the car approached her. Under cross-examination by Bencangey, Jessup conceded that the woman “was more in the path” of the oncoming car after she moved toward the center of the alley.

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Jessup said he saw the car make “an abrupt turn” as it approached the woman. Goethals contended that Ornelas made this “abrupt turn” deliberately--that Ornelas was intent on running the woman down as she tried to flee.

But Bencangey said Jessup’s testimony instead showed that Ornelas turned to the right to avoid hitting the woman and that she inadvertently ran back in front of the car.

A Killelea neighbor, Gayle Orchard, testified last week that Ornelas climbed out of the overturned car after the collision, looked at the dying woman in the alley, and uttered a curse.

“He frightened me,” Orchard said. “I’ll never forget it.”

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But Bencangey has said that Ornelas is a “nice kid who wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

Whether the defense attorney will allow Ornelas to make his own impression on the jury is, in the words of Bencangey, something “that remains to be seen.”


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