Judge Clears Way for Player

Times Staff Writer

A former high school football star convicted of felony assault two years ago for his role in a fight at a Palmdale party had his conviction reduced Friday to a misdemeanor, paving the way for him to play at Oregon on an athletic scholarship.

Rodney Woods, 20, sat and listened without emotion as Lancaster Superior Court Judge Thomas R. White supplied him a second chance of sorts. Woods, a two-time All-American cornerback at Fresno City College, would not have been allowed to play at Oregon if the felony had not been reduced.

White said his ruling was based primarily on positive reports he received from Woods' chief probation officer and a court-appointed psychiatrist who said Woods did not pose a significant risk to society.

"I'm giving you an opportunity here that I only hope you'll take advantage of," White said to Woods.

In January 2001, Woods was sentenced to a year in jail and five years probation after pleading no contest to felony assault for chasing down and punching a man within minutes of a fatal altercation at a nighttime party during Woods' senior year at Littlerock High.

Woods was not convicted of charges directly connected to Christopher O'Leary's death -- two of his former Littlerock High football teammates were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and each received four-year sentences for the beating -- but prosecutors said at Woods' sentencing that he got "the ball rolling" by arguing with O'Leary at the party and then summoning his two friends.

Dressed Friday in a cream-colored jacket and tan slacks, Woods apologized to O'Leary's family and to Kevin Walker, the man he assaulted, while addressing the court.

After the ruling, Woods said he was relieved.

"Hopefully, kids learn from what I've been through ... and what can happen in a matter of seconds," he said. "I didn't make good judgment at the time."

White ordered Woods to attend anger management classes every week for 26 weeks, beginning May 1.

In addition, Woods agreed to waive the one-year sentence he completed in L.A. County Jail, opening himself up to more jail time, possibly in state prison, if he violates the terms of his probation. Woods has almost three years left on his five-year probation.

"He still has a hammer over his head," said Woods' attorney, James Blatt.

O'Leary's family soundly rejected the judge's decision. O'Leary's mother, who clutched a wooden box of her son's ashes during the hearing, tearfully addressed the media after the hearing and suggested she might protest Woods' games in Oregon.

"I will go to Oregon and I will find him," Kathleen Harris said. "I will not stop.

"He has a second chance and he's going to school. Chris doesn't have the opportunity to have a second chance. He's not here. He's gone forever."

Harris and O'Leary's father, Michael, each spoke for five minutes during the hearing, expressing outrage that Woods had been offered a scholarship to Oregon and imploring White not to reduce the felony.

Walker, who escaped with cuts and bruises after being assaulted by Woods and several other people at the party, was stunned by the decision.

"It's not right," he said. "He initiated Chris' death. I was going to be next. I was just lucky I survived."

Woods, who still needs to complete three classes at Fresno City College before gaining admission into Oregon, said he hopes to be enrolled at the school when its academic fourth quarter begins March 31.

Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti said he was "pleased and happy" for Woods.

"I've said all along we did our homework ahead of time," Bellotti said. "The more I got to know Rodney, I was pulling for him not from a football standpoint but a pure humanistic standpoint. I feel strongly he deserves this opportunity and he's going to get it."

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