An appellate court announced Monday that it has reversed the murder conviction of a drunk driver who killed a Fullerton mother and all three of her children five years ago.
The 4th District Court of Appeal ordered that the jury conviction for Michael W. Reding, now 31, automatically be reduced to vehicular manslaughter unless the Orange County district attorney’s office decides within 30 days to retry him for murder.
In their opinion, the justices stated, jurors never should have heard about the driver’s possible cocaine use that day. “The prejudicial effect of drug use on a jury cannot be overestimated in today’s war-on-drugs climate,” Justice Thomas F. Crosby Jr. said.
The decision drew strong criticism Monday from Robert F. Trueblood, who lost his wife and three children in the Fullerton collision. “I obviously feel the appellate court has made a tremendous mistake,” he said. “The appellate court is not really interested in justice being served. They are just dealing with legal technicalities in court. . . .
“I have not read the transcripts of the case. But I’ve followed the matter from day one. I’ve been to court every day. I have witnessed the whole thing. The matter should be appealed to the state Supreme Court or retried. The D.A. should make sure that justice is done.”
Prosecutors, greatly disappointed at the ruling, said they have not yet decided whether to retry Reding, and it is unclear what affect Monday’s decision would have on how much prison time Reding will serve.
“My inclination right now is to think we will retry him for murder. But it’s premature to say just what we will do,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas M. Goethals, in charge of its writs and appeals section.
Reding was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison in 1986 after he became the first drunk driver in Orange County to be convicted of second-degree murder in a vehicle collision. The trial became a focal point for groups seeking tougher jail sentences for drunk drivers.
Reding admitted that he had been drinking on the night of Oct. 23, 1984, when his car plowed into an oncoming vehicle on State College Boulevard, near Bastanchury Road in Fullerton. Killed were the other driver, 36-year-old Pamela Trueblood, and her children, Eric, 11, Kerry, 9, and Scott, 8. Two other children in the car with the Trueblood family survived serious injuries. Reding also has recovered from his injuries.
Reding testified that he had just changed a tape on his car stereo when he looked up and saw that he was approaching the car ahead of him too quickly. Witnesses said Reding was driving at a speed of more than 70 m.p.h. in a 45 m.p.h. zone and tried to pass the car on the right shoulder. They testified that he then cut back sharply left to avoid going over an embankment, and struck the Trueblood car head-on.
Asked how he had coped since the collision and death of family, Robert Trueblood said Monday: “I draw my strengths from the Bible and through the Lord Jesus Christ. They both last an eternity. Without them, I don’t know where I would have been.”
Trueblood said he has also been active with the Mothers Against Drunk Driving organization, which monitored the hearings and “kept me apprised all the time.”
Reding’s lawyers did not try to dispute that their client was drunk at the time of the collision. But a hotly disputed issue was whether he also had taken cocaine that day. While cocaine-related chemicals were found in his system, there was evidence he might have taken the drug at an earlier date.
Reding’s prosecutor, Mike Jacobs, who has since left the district attorney’s office, agreed before the trial not to raise the cocaine issue unless the defense did something to make it necessary in rebuttal.
But Jacobs brought it up during cross-examination of Reding, claiming that it was a legitimate issue to impeach his testimony that he was able to drive safely. Superior Court Judge James L. Smith agreed to admit the evidence for a limited purpose: to determine if cocaine might have affected Reding’s sketchy memory of the day’s events.
On rebuttal, Judge Smith allowed testimony of a drug expert who inferred that chemicals found in Reding’s system showed he had probably taken some cocaine that day. Reding denied any cocaine use before the crash.
In closing arguments, Jacobs told jurors that cocaine use made Reding more dangerous and speculated that he was probably on his way to buy more cocaine when the crash occurred.
“The prosecutor effectively sank the defendant in a sea of white powder,” Justice Crosby said. While Crosby called Jacobs overzealous, he also attacked Reding attorney Heidi Mueller for not raising more objections over the cocaine issue. While Crosby scolded both of them, he added that “this was both a difficult and emotional trial.”
The appellate court decision to reverse the murder conviction was unanimous. But Presiding Justice Harmon G. Scoville wrote a dissenting opinion because he disagreed with Crosby and Justice Sheila Sonenshine that the lawyers’ errors at the Reding trial reached a level of “unprofessional conduct.”
The justices upheld Reding’s conviction on a lesser charge of felony drunk driving at the same trial.
Reding, an engineer at Northrop Corp., said in interviews before his conviction he thought that he should be punished for what he had done but that murder was too steep a charge for his conduct.
Judge Smith could have sentenced Reding to consecutive terms for each of the four deaths, amounting to 60 years in prison. But prosecutors did not ask for anything beyond 15 years to life, citing Reding’s lack of any criminal record.
Prosecutor Goethals said a re-sentence on four counts of vehicular manslaughter ordered by the appellate court could amount to a sentence of as much as 15 years. But the difference is, it would be a specific sentence, instead of the broader “15 years to life” that a murder conviction carries.
Times staff writer Davan Maharaj contributed to this story.