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Driver Won’t Be in Graduation Ceremony

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Katella High School senior who recently pleaded guilty to felony drunk driving and vehicular manslaughter in the deaths of four friends may not participate in his school’s graduation ceremony, despite an angry judge’s opinion that barring the senior constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Parents of the dead boys welcomed the news about the graduation but berated the judge for sympathizing with a drunk driver.

Under a deal struck two months ago in San Bernardino County Juvenile Court, 18-year-old James Patterson agreed to various probation conditions in connection with the July 1995 desert crash that killed four teenage boys, including three of Patterson’s fellow seniors.

The conditions included a provision that Patterson skip his high school graduation. After taking his final exam, he was scheduled to go straight to jail for four months, followed by four months of alcohol rehabilitation and one year of probation.

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But because Patterson lives in Anaheim, procedure called for his probation deal to be reviewed by Orange County Juvenile Court, and Judge Ronald E. Owen found the deal lacking in compassion.

Last week, without any prompting from Patterson or his lawyer, Owen granted permission for Patterson to take part in Katella’s commencement exercises, a move that outraged many in the community, especially the victims’ families.

“It’s just a slap in the face,” said Christine Thornton, mother of John Thornton, 18, who died in the crash. “The victims weren’t taken into consideration at all.”

Also killed were Steven Bender, 18, Jonothan Croweagle Fabbro, 16, and Tony Fuentes, 17. Three other students were seriously injured.

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Precluding a nasty court fight, Patterson agreed Tuesday afternoon to abide by the original deal, but not before Owen held him out for praise and chastised those who wish to see him suffer.

“I felt that the conditions of his probation were unconscionable, that it was cruel and unusual punishment,” said Owen, whose courtroom was packed with Patterson supporters as well as opponents.

In fact, many friends of Patterson, an Eagle Scout who will graduate near the top of his 316-member class, were visibly heartened to hear Owen speak so enthusiastically on his behalf.

Though girded for battle over Patterson’s “right” to graduate, Owen said he relented when Patterson, during an in-chambers meeting, expressed a sincere desire to let the matter rest.

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“This young man has become a man today,” Owen said. “In order to spare the victims any more grief, he [will] abide by these conditions from San Bernardino [County] without any changes. I apologize to him for giving him some hope.”

Owen acknowledged that he might have listened to the victims’ families before unilaterally nullifying selected terms of Patterson’s probation. But he quickly added that the families would not necessarily have changed his mind.

“I cannot say that I could know what grief the victims feel,” Owen said. “I can only say I can imagine what the grief is. But to take away from this man his right to graduate--this would not fly!”

Particularly offensive to Owen was the notion that he had meddled in a case about which he knew nothing, thereby undoing months of delicate negotiations between the San Bernardino district attorney’s office and Patterson’s lawyer.

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“I didn’t stick my nose anywhere,” Owen said, scowling at the assembled lawyers and reporters. “The file was stuck under my nose.”

Patterson and his family left the court without commenting. The victims’ families were too tired to comment as well.

“I’m just pleased,” said Christine Thornton, “that James was the man he turned out to be.”


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