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Emotional Final Arguments : Jury to Weigh Fate of Ornelas in Alley Death

Times Staff Writer

A jury is scheduled to begin deliberating the fate of Danny David Ornelas today after lengthy and emotional final arguments on Monday by both sides in the 2-week-old murder trial.

Ornelas, 19, of Huntington Park is charged with the hit-run death of a Newport Beach woman on Sept. 1. Debbie Killelea, 37, was fatally injured as she stood in an alley behind her Balboa Peninsula home with her two young sons.

In final arguments Monday in Westminster Superior Court, Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas Goethals called the woman’s death an “American tragedy.” He said the fatality has caused great pain to family and friends of both Killelea and Ornelas.

Goethals said that the evidence in the case has proved that Ornelas committed second-degree murder. By speeding up the alley and failing to brake when he saw Killelea and her two children, Ornelas demonstrated what the law terms as “implied malice,” Goethals contended.

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‘Conduct Became Malicious’

“When he chose to do that . . . his conduct became malicious, and he killed her. He committed murder,” Goethals said. “Why didn’t he put the brakes on? It’s simple. He didn’t want to.”

But Ornelas’ defense attorney, Ralph Bencangey of Beverly Hills, told the jury that the Sept. 1 fatality was an accident--not murder. The defense attorney criticized Goethals for trying Ornelas on a murder charge, contending that the question should be whether Ornelas is guilty of manslaughter.

Bencangey also argued that rather than choosing to run down Killelea, Ornelas, in fact, tried to miss the woman.

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“He turned the car in an attempt to avoid her,” Bencangey said. “He jeopardized himself.”

Goethals, however, told the jury that Ornelas could have avoided hitting the woman simply by applying the brakes when he saw Killelea and her two sons walking down the alley.

“Why did Debbie Killelea die?” Goethals asked. “Because he (Ornelas) refused to brake, to slow down for an instant.”

According to evidence presented during the trial, Ornelas did not touch the brakes until an instant before hitting Killelea. A prosecution witness, Tim Jessup of Newport Beach, testified that the car’s brake lights flashed on just before the vehicle struck Killelea.

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However, police and safety experts who testified said that the car was never fully braked. The impact hurled Killelea 87 feet through the air, according to trial testimony.

Murder Charges ‘Very Rare’

Defense attorney Bencangey told the jury that public reaction and news stories about the fatality prompted the district attorney’s office to seek a murder charge against Ornelas. He argued that murder charges in traffic accidents are “very rare” and that the evidence in this case did not warrant a murder accusation.

“Why would he (Ornelas) attack the victim?” Bencangey asked the jury. He added: “Lack of motive tends to show innocence.”

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Bencangey said that Killelea contributed to her death by walking to the middle of the alley to face Ornelas’ on-coming car. According to Jessup’s testimony, Killelea briefly stood in the center of the alley with her hands on her hips to show her displeasure of the fast-moving car.

A videotape accidentally made by a passenger in the car driven by Ornelas shows Killelea facing the oncoming car. Goethals argued that the tape helps prove his murder case against Ornelas, but Bencangey introduced an expert witness during the trial who testified that the tape shows Ornelas was trying to avoid hitting her.

Goethals devoted much of his final arguments on Monday to discounting the testimony of that expert witness, Ted A. Mitchell. Goethals said Mitchell was in error in arguing that Ornelas “acted prudently” in trying to avoid hitting Killelea. Goethals said that the videotape does not show all of the episode in the alley, adding that Ornelas had the opportunity to brake as soon as he saw the mother and children walking toward him.

Bencangey told the jury that Ornelas did his best to avoid the victim. “If you have a reasonable doubt about whether the crime is between murder and manslaughter, you have to find manslaughter,” Bencangey told the jury.

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