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Mannes Case Appeal Is an Uphill Battle : Courts: The D.A. seeks to retry a drunk driver on murder charges in the crash that killed three.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

By summer’s end, a federal appeals court will decide whether Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury gets another chance to convict a drunk driver named Diane Mannes of murder.

If Bradbury loses in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals--which he concedes is a good possibility--he said he will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. It would be the first time in Bradbury’s 12-year tenure that he took a case to the nation’s highest court.

And even if Bradbury prevails on appeal, it will only mean he gets a second chance to prove that Mannes--who struck and killed three young men walking along the Ventura Freeway on March 31, 1989--is guilty of second-degree murder. In the 10 years that California courts have permitted murder convictions for drunk-driving homicides, guilty verdicts have been returned only rarely--and never in Ventura County.

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At Mannes’ trial in November, 1989, the jury split almost evenly on the murder count. The judge later dismissed the charge, saying the evidence was insufficient for a murder conviction. Since the trial, the key question in the case--was it murder?--has taken a back seat to a more immediate one: Can Mannes be retried for murder?

Three months ago, a federal judge in Los Angeles said no, citing the Bill of Rights’ protection against being tried twice for the same offense. Last week, Bradbury appealed that ruling, starting an uphill battle that raises yet another question:

Why is Bradbury--facing budget problems, dubious prospects of success and doubts in his own office--pushing so hard for a murder conviction?

The main reason, Bradbury said, is his strong belief that Mannes is guilty of murder, although he acknowledged that not everyone in his office thinks that the murder case is worth pursuing. “If this is not a murder case, I haven’t seen one yet.”

Bradbury, who has long been tough on drunk drivers, denied that politics has played a role in his decisions.

“We’re not doing anything that we wouldn’t do in any murder case,” he said.

By any standard, however, People vs. Diane Helen Mannes is not a typical murder case. For one thing, Mannes is accused of murdering three people. Ventura County has not had a triple murder since 1979, when three Los Angeles men were killed in a drug deal gone awry.

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What’s more, Mannes’ victims were not out-of-town drug dealers; two of the three were local youths whose families’ grief was widely reported and shared by an outraged public. And Mannes’ weapon was not a gun or a knife but a 1984 Ford Bronco.

And prosecutors admit that in the Mannes case, the malice aforethought--that esoteric but essential element for a murder conviction--is less clear-cut than in most murder cases.

“It stretches the limits of the law” to find a drunk driver guilty of murder, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Donald C. Glynn, the prosecutor at Mannes’ trial. For a jury to convict, he said, “the law requires your reaction to be, ‘That is just outrageous!’ If you don’t think that, we don’t have it.”

Both Glynn and Bradbury thought they had it in the Mannes case.

By her own account, Mannes, then a 31-year-old office manager who drank only occasionally, borrowed her boyfriend’s car and drove to her father’s home in Westlake Village. She intended to confront him over a long-simmering dispute that had recently flared again. She sat in the car, drinking vodka and orange juice to work up her courage. Finally, she knocked on the door.

Nobody answered. Mannes decided to drive back to her home in Somis, about 15 miles away on the other side of the steep Conejo Grade.

Meanwhile, a flat tire forced six young men to abandon their car on the grade and walk to the bottom for help. Witnesses testified that as Mannes descended the grade’s broad S curves in the slow lane, she suddenly veered to the left, possibly to avoid the youths’ disabled car. A vehicle in the next lane blocked her. She swerved back to the right, grazed the disabled car and then smashed into five of the youths.

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Scott Mullins, 20, of Mansfield, Ohio, was dead at the scene. Jacob Boyd, 14, of Camarillo died in a helicopter on the way to the hospital. Joshua Oxenreider, 19, of Camarillo died shortly afterward. Two other youths suffered major injuries.

Mannes’ vehicle came to rest upside-down a few hundred yards down the road, the driver hanging by her seat belt. A sticker on her rear bumper seemed chillingly accurate: “I Swerve and Hit People at Random.”

Her blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.20%, twice the legal limit at the time. In subsequent days, investigators learned that only 43 hours before the fatal accident, Mannes had been arrested in Tarzana on suspicion of drunk driving with a 0.26% blood-alcohol content, and that she had a drunk-driving conviction in 1983.

At the outset of the trial in November, 1989, Bradbury and his deputies were so confident of a guilty verdict that they filed the charge only as murder, which prevented the jury from finding Mannes guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.

After two days of deliberation, the jurors said they were unable to agree on a verdict. The split was 7 to 5 for conviction. Mannes was convicted of causing great injury to the two youths who survived the accident, and she is serving a four-year term at the Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla.

In a recent interview, one of the jurors who favored a murder conviction said the panel could not agree that Mannes had exhibited the malice needed for a guilty verdict.

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In 1981, the California Supreme Court held that a vehicular homicide can be second-degree murder if there is a sufficient showing of “implied malice.” The court said implied malice exists when a person knowingly commits a dangerous act with “conscious disregard for life.” Phrased another way, the court said, malice is implied when a person commits an act “with a high probability that it will result in death and does it with . . . a wanton disregard for life.”

Only two drunk-driving homicides resulted in murder convictions in California last year, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Figures since the 1981 ruling were not available, but several sources estimated the total number of convictions at no more than 20.

“You almost have to look into the mind of the accused,” the Mannes juror said. “It’s not enough that she did it. It’s what was in her thoughts. You have to determine that her mental attitude was such that she basically said, ‘I’m going to do it and I don’t care.’ That’s what makes it difficult.”

In cases where drunk drivers have been convicted of murder, the defendant had clearly been put on notice that his activity was dangerous.

In a San Fernando Valley case, for example, the defendant ran red lights and had several near misses before the fatal crash. In a Sacramento case, friends had warned the defendant that he was too drunk to drive, yet the man drank even more alcohol before he killed three people with his car. In a San Joaquin Valley case, the defendant was convicted of murder in part because he had killed his brother in a different drunk-driving case five years earlier and still chose to drink and drive.

Prosecutor Glynn said Mannes ignored similar warnings. After her 1983 arrest she attended classes on alcohol abuse. After the Tarzana arrest--and hours before the fatal crash--she received a 2 1/2-hour lecture from her boyfriend on the dangers of drunk driving, according to his testimony.

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“When she took her first drink, she knew where it might lead,” Glynn said.

But Mannes’ attorney, Deputy Public Defender Robert Dahlstedt, said Glynn had failed to prove that at the time she was driving down the grade, Mannes knew that she was committing a dangerous act and consciously ignored the risk.

Dahlstedt also said that no evidence was presented that drunk driving carries a “high probability of death,” as required by the Supreme Court ruling. He noted that thousands of people drive while intoxicated every day without killing anyone.

“The malice is what the problem was,” said another juror, who favored acquittal on the murder charge. “I think her emotional problems got in the way of her thinking. . . . It’s very hard to say that she did this intentionally.”

Both jurors, who asked not to be identified, declined to comment on whether Bradbury should keep pushing for a murder conviction. But the juror who favored conviction said: “I think Mike Bradbury has a big job ahead of him.”

And despite his vote for guilty, that juror said he has no quarrel with Superior Court Judge Robert J. Soares, who ruled that there was “no reasonable possibility that a new jury could arrive at a unanimous verdict of guilty on the murder charge.”

In a rebuff to Bradbury, Soares dismissed the charge rather than schedule a new trial. The judge found insufficient evidence of implied malice and, therefore, insufficient evidence of murder.

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The judge also seemed to fault Bradbury for not offering to amend the charge at a second trial to allow conviction on a lesser count. He said he sympathized with the victims’ families but said he was obligated to rule “in a manner which is not based upon public feelings, or public opinion.”

But Soares clearly did not believe that his dismissal would prevent a second murder trial. “I am aware,” he wrote, “that our laws provide that this dismissal does not prevent the refiling of these murder charges--and a new trial.”

When Bradbury refiled the murder charge, Dahlstedt and Neil B. Quinn, the public defender’s appeal specialist, argued that Soares had, in effect, acquitted Mannes of murder when he found the evidence insufficient.

A Superior Court judge disagreed and let the case proceed. So did the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Ventura and the California Supreme Court.

But early this year, Mannes’ attorneys prevailed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. U.S. Magistrate Volney V. Brown Jr. found that the Fifth Amendment’s double-jeopardy clause forbids a retrial “where the trial court finds that the evidence at the first trial was legally insufficient.”

“That is this case!” the magistrate wrote, underlining his words. Judge A. Wallace Tashima agreed with Brown’s analysis and issued an order “forever prohibiting the retrial” of Diane Mannes for murder.

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Both sides agree that Mannes can still be retried for vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, which could carry a maximum term of 10 years, compared to 15 years to life for second-degree murder. Dahlstedt said the four-year sentence she is currently serving will probably be taken into account if she is ever convicted and sentenced in the homicides.

Dahlstedt said Mannes has always been willing to plead guilty to a vehicular manslaughter charge. Several sources in Bradbury’s office said it was fine to take a shot at getting a murder conviction. But given the difficulties of getting a new trial, let alone a conviction, “we should get out from under this” by negotiating for a guilty plea, one source said.

Glynn said he supports Bradbury’s decision to pursue the case, and thinks he has a better chance now of getting a murder conviction. He declined to elaborate about what would be different from the first trial, except to say: “I would love to have known then what I know now.”

But Glynn also acknowledged that it is an “uphill battle when you’re trying to get an appeal court to overturn a lower court.” The 9th Circuit justices are considered among the most liberal in the nation and not likely to rule against the defendant in a double-jeopardy case.

Bradbury agrees that he may not win in the 9th Circuit but he sees better prospects in the Supreme Court.

“We may not win, but we’re right,” Bradbury said. He said he could not estimate the cost of pursuing the case, but said it would be small because he is using staff attorneys instead of outside counsel. The Mannes prosecution, he said, has no effect on the fact that his office is expected to exceed its annual budget by $344,000 during the current fiscal year.

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Dahlstedt said Bradbury’s zeal to convict a drunk driver of murder is based on politics and ego, not the likelihood of success. “Everything he does is political,” Dahlstedt said. “He has to do what he thinks is best for being reelected.”

Bradbury denied any political motivation, and the politics argument is undercut by the fact that he was reelected without opposition in 1982, 1986 and 1990. He said the public outcry against drunk drivers in recent years did not influence his decisions in the Mannes case, but he acknowledged that he has long been hard on drunk drivers.

In 1982, then-President Ronald Reagan appointed Bradbury to the President’s Commission on Drunk Driving. As vice chairman, Bradbury helped conduct hearings around the country where the victims of drunk drivers and their families testified.

“It was the most sobering thing I have ever experienced,” Bradbury said. Driving under the influence “became an extremely important area for me. I wanted to make a difference in the DUI area.”

Thanks to his staff’s aggressive prosecution of drunk drivers, more than 12,000 people are on probation in Ventura County for driving under the influence--about 2.5% of the county’s licensed drivers. Even before the Legislature reduced the maximum legal blood-alcohol level to 0.08%, Bradbury’s deputies were convicting people whose blood-alcohol level was below the former standard of 0.10%

“That’s what it takes to combat the problem--a D.A. who’s aggressive,” said David French, state co-chairman of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “Your area is very fortunate. Ventura and San Bernardino counties are the leaders in this area.”

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In the Mannes case, French said MADD favors doing whatever the families want. The families of Mannes’ victims have repeatedly said they stand behind Bradbury’s effort to get a murder conviction.

But French acknowledged the difficulty in getting murder convictions in cases involving drunk driving.

“It’s the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I mentality,” French said. “A great many people have done this.”

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