Rejecting a charge of second-degree murder, an Orange County Superior Court jury this morning found Danny David Ornelas, 19, guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated in the Sept. 1 death of a Newport Beach mother who was standing in an alley with her two children when she was struck by a car he was driving.
The prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas Goethals, had urged the jury to convict Ornelas of murder, arguing that the Huntington Park youth deliberately swerved the speeding car at Debbie Killelea, 37, as she stood in the alley.
But Ornelas’ defense attorney, Ralph Bencangey of Beverly Hills, repeatedly told the jury during the three-week trial that the case should be a manslaughter trial, not murder.
Could Have Received Life
If the jury had convicted Ornelas of second-degree murder, he could have been sentenced to up to life in prison. The manslaughter conviction carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, with eligibility for parole after five.
Judge Luis A. Cardenas ordered Ornelas to be immediately taken into jail custody, after the jury gave its verdict at 10:35 a.m. Cardenas set sentencing for May 2. Ornelas showed no emotion as he briefly answered the judge’s questions after the verdict was announced.
In the courtroom, the youth’s parents, Manuel and Blanca Ornelas, held hands as the verdict was read by the seven-man, five-woman jury. Blanca Ornelas and her daughter, Elizabeth, broke into sobs after the verdict, and the mother had to be helped from the courtroom.
Family ‘Pleased, Grateful’
But the family members later said they are pleased and grateful that the jury did not find Danny Ornelas guilty of murder. “I know Danny will be all right,” said his mother. “God will take care of him.”
Relatives of Debbie Killelea who had attended the three-week trial in West Municipal Court in Westminster displayed no emotion as the verdict was read. Later however, Michael Kilfoy of Costa Mesa, Killelea’s brother, said the family had mixed emotions about the outcome.
“We feel very sorry for the Ornelas family, but after he serves time in prison, at least their family can all be together again,” Kilfoy said. “By contrast, our family can never be all together again.”
Safety Measures Demanded
The Ornelas case stemmed from the death of Killelea last Sept. 1. The circumstances of her death created a public uproar in Newport Beach, with residents demanding more safety measures against young visitors who flood the beach area during the warm-weather months.
Ornelas and two friends, George Herrera, 20, of Hacienda Heights, and John Lozano, then 17, had planned to spend the day at the Wedge area of Newport Beach.
According to court testimony, the three stopped at a liquor store on the way and persuaded a stranger to buy them alcoholic beverages, since they were under the legal age. The stranger purchased three 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor and a bottle of 151-proof rum for the youths.