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Ornelas Has No Recall of Fatal Crash, Lawyer Says

Times Staff Writer

Danny David Ornelas, on trial for murder in the vehicular death of a Newport Beach mother last September, has no memory of the incident, his lawyer said Tuesday.

The attorney, Ralph Bencangey, said in an interview that Ornelas cannot remember anything about driving a car in a narrow alley on Balboa Peninsula and striking and fatally injuring Debbie Killelea on Sept. 1.

An expert witness has also testified that Ornelas had told him he was unable to remember anything about the fatal crash. “He (Ornelas) said he can’t even remember turning on the ignition,” said the witness, Ted A. Mitchell.

Ornelas, 19, of Huntington Park, is on trial in Orange County Superior Court in Westminster on a charge of second-degree murder. One of the closely watched aspects of the trial has been whether the young defendant would take the stand to give his version of the fatal collision.

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On Tuesday, Bencangey completed his presentation of the defense’s case, and Ornelas was not called to testify. Bencangey, however, said he may still call him Wednesday.

“I’m not going to disclose what we plan to do,” said Bencangey, in an interview outside the courtroom.

The prosecution has accused Ornelas of drunkenly driving a speeding car into the alley and deliberately running down Killelea, 37, as she stood with her two young sons.

Judge Luis A. Cardenas several times on Tuesday prohibited Bencangey from questioning another witness about the effect of alcohol intoxication on memory loss. Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas Goethals had objected and the judge agreed, ruling the witness was not an expert in psychology or memory loss.

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Bencangey later said the ruling did not hurt the defense because Mitchell, on Monday, had already testified that Ornelas is unable to remember the car collision.

Mitchell, an automotive engineer who is an expert in analyzing car accidents, testified Monday that people in such accidents often repress memories of the event. Ornelas only has “nightmares and dreams but no specific recollections,” Mitchell told the jury.

On Tuesday, Darrell Clardy, an expert in analyzing behavior of drunk drivers and a toxicologist formerly employed by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, said he believes Ornelas only had a 0.04 blood-alcohol level at the time the collision occurred--5 p.m. Sept. 1.

Ornelas, who was arrested 35 minutes after the collision, had a blood alcohol level of 0.18 at 6:43 p.m. when a blood sample was taken, law enforcement experts have testified. Under state law, anyone with a blood alcohol level of 0.10 is considered intoxicated. Ornelas thus registered almost twice the level of legal intoxication. Clardy’s testimony in effect challenged whether Ornelas was that drunk when the impact took place. Clardy noted that Ornelas and two friends were drinking strong rum at the beach shortly before Ornelas went to the car to drive it down the alley. Clardy said strong intoxicants sometimes are not absorbed into the bloodstream until long after being consumed.

Bencangey attempted to ask Clardy several questions about how some car accident victims lose memories of the events, but the judge would not allow the questions.


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