After agonizing for 5 days over whether the crime was murder or manslaughter, an Orange County Superior Court jury on Monday convicted Danny David Ornelas, 19, of the lesser charge of “gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated” in the Sept. 1 death of a Newport Beach woman.
The jury, which at one point declared itself “hopelessly deadlocked,” in effect found that Ornelas did not intentionally kill Debbie Killelea, 37, in an alley behind her Balboa Peninsula home. Killelea, who was with two of her three children, pushed them aside before being struck and killed by Ornelas’ speeding car.
The accident, which took place just before Labor Day weekend, caused an uproar on the peninsula, rekindling a debate among residents about traffic, particularly during holidays. The case also attracted statewide interest, largely because of an eerie videotape of the fatal incident made by Ornelas’ passenger.
The prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas Goethals, argued that the tape proved that the Huntington Park youth deliberately swerved his car to hit Killelea. Goethals had asked for a second-degree murder conviction. But the defense attorney, Ralph Bencangey of Beverly Hills, contended that the videotape proved that Ornelas tried to avoid hitting Killelea and thus should have been tried for manslaughter, not murder.
Swayed by Expert Witness
In interviews, jurors said they were ultimately swayed by the testimony of an expert witness for the defense, Ted Mitchell. Mitchell, an auto accident analyzer from Upland, testified that the videotape proved that Ornelas swerved the car in the last seconds to try to avoid hitting Killelea.
Some jurors also said they simply did not believe that Ornelas consciously intended to harm anyone, even though he was intoxicated and speeding on Sept. 1.
“In my mind I don’t think he could have possibly been driving in that alley consciously thinking, ‘I’m going to kill somebody,’ ” said juror Gail Brooks, 32, an assistant customer service manager from Buena Park.
Beverly Aye, 41, a federal government employee from Yorba Linda, said: “The swerve (of the car) was really a critical point. That’s what we were all really trying to come to an agreement about. Some people (on the jury) felt that swerve was intentional . . . but the majority of us felt he (Ornelas) was swerving to avoid . . . (Killelea).”
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 5.
Ornelas Taken Into Custody
Judge Luis A. Cardenas ordered Ornelas to be immediately taken into custody after the jury gave its verdict at 10:35 a.m. Monday. Ornelas had been free on $100,000 bail, but the judge rejected Bencangey’s plea that the defendant be allowed to remain on bail until sentencing. “He (Ornelas) did flee the scene of the crime after the incident,” Cardenas said in ruling against continued bail.
Cardenas set sentencing for May 2. Ornelas showed no emotion, and he was calm as he briefly answered the judge’s questions after the verdict was announced. Ornelas did not testify during the trial, and one defense witness said Ornelas had no memory of the fatal collision.
In the courtroom on Monday, the youth’s parents, Manuel and Blanca Ornelas, held hands tightly as the verdict was read. Blanca Ornelas and her daughter, Elizabeth, broke into sobs after the verdict, and the mother had to be helped from the courtroom.
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,” his mother said. “God will take care of him.”
Relatives of Debbie Killelea who had attended the 3-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.
“I don’t know if there is a good conclusion to this tragedy,” Kilfoy said. “There’s certainly not a good conclusion for our family. We’ve lost a loved one. I don’t think there’s a good conclusion for the defendant’s family. They’ve lost him (Danny Ornelas) for possibly 10 years, but they’re going to have a chance to continue to stay as an entire family after that point. We’ve lost that option. That was stolen from us by his action.”
Killelea’s husband and children did not attend the trial, which often involved graphic testimony about Debbie Killelea’s death. Her mother, Julia Kilfoy of Laguna Hills, attended every day and on some days appeared overwhelmed by the testimony.
‘The Healing Process’
“This has been a wearing process on my mother,” said Mike Kilfoy. But, he added, “I think she is comfortable with the verdict. We now go on into the healing process.”
Goethals, the prosecutor, said “we can live with this verdict and I have spoken with the family (of Debbie Killelea) and I think they can live with this verdict. Anything less than this would have been a disappointment.”
Said defense attorney Bencangey: “The verdict is akin to what the defendant would have plea-bargained for.”
Jurors had a difficult time reaching the verdict, and on Thursday declared in court they were “hopelessly deadlocked” in an 8-4 split. The judge, however, gave them additional instructions on the law and ordered them to renew their deliberations. Juror Aye said Monday that at the time of deadlock, eight were in favor of a manslaughter conviction, and four in favor of a murder verdict.
“We felt the swerve was intentional because the driver had to make a decision to swerve,” said juror Andrew Trevino, 29, of Placentia, a writer for an aircraft company. “But the question was: What was his intention? Was it to hit her or was it to avoid her? The testimony provided by (defense expert witness) Mr. Mitchell was critical to that because it raised doubts (that Ornelas intended to hit Debbie Killelea).”
Joyriding in Newport
In the debate that followed Killelea’s death, angry Balboa residents noted that she had worked to get city officials to try to slow down traffic on the peninsula. Residents said Killelea, who had three children and was active in church work and community affairs, died needlessly because of uncontrolled joy-riding by tourists in the resort community.
Ornelas, a short, boyish-looking young man, was with two young friends for a day at “The Wedge” area of Newport Beach Sept. 1, according to trial testimony.
Ornelas rode from his Los Angeles County home to the area in the car of a friend, George Herrera, 20, of Hacienda Heights. Another friend, John Lozano, who was then 17, also was in the group.
According to court testimony, the three stopped at a liquor store en route to Newport Beach. They jointly persuaded a stranger to take their money and buy them alcoholic beverages because they all 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.
After drinking the liquor, according to testimony, Ornelas asked Herrera for the keys to Herrera’s 1984 Nissan 200SX so he could go back to the car to get his video camera. Lozano walked back to the parked car with Ornelas who said, to Lozano’s surprise, that he was going to move the car. Lozano said he got the video camera out of the car and was walking back to the beach but ended up riding with Ornelas, with the camera running.
Jurors saw that portion of Lozano’s videotape during the trial. The brief scene showed a glassy-eyed Ornelas at the steering wheel using off-color language to persuade Lozano to get into the car.
Lozano testified he got into the car and toyed with the video camera as Ornelas drove toward the ocean on Channel Road. The road dead ends at the alley that separates ocean-front homes from homes facing Ocean Boulevard.
Ornelas swung the car into the alley, down which Killelea was walking with her sons Michael, 10, and Joe, 6. Two eyewitnesses testified that Ornelas was driving about 50 m.p.h. although one accident analyst estimated that the car was going about 40 m.p.h. and slowed to 32 m.p.h. just before impact.
Eyewitness Tim Jessup said Killelea saw the oncoming car and made sure her boys were safe by the wall. Jessup said Killelea then briefly stepped to the center of the alley and put her hands on her hips. “She was sort of saying, ‘Won’t you please slow down?’ ” Jessup said.
The videotape, which was played in slow motion in court, showed Killelea walking to the center of the alley and facing the oncoming car. The tape showed her two young sons anxiously watching her as they stood by the alley wall.
The video ends as Killelea, still facing the oncoming car, is seen trying to move back to the safety of the wall. There is a jumble of wall scenes as the collision takes place. Then no pictures, but the sound records one of Killelea’s boys crying, “Where’s my mom? Where’s my mom?”
Killelea, badly injured, died a few hours later in Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center.