A Bay Area man was convicted of choking and assaulting a fellow passenger on a San Francisco-bound Southwest Airlines flight that was forced to make an emergency return to Los Angeles last year.
Jurors found Lawrence Wells Jr., 54, of Richmond, guilty Wednesday of misdemeanor assault but acquitted him of the felony charge of causing serious bodily injury, according to U.S. District Court records.
“Defendant’s violent reaction to the frustrations of air travel was beyond the bounds of civilized behavior,” U.S. Atty. Eileen M. Decker said in a statement. “The victim was fortunate that she did not suffer greater injuries, because she had no way to defend herself from this defendant’s attack.”
Wells is scheduled to be sentenced June 27. He faces up to six months in federal prison.
Wells’ attorney, Alan Eisner, told The Times the jury’s decision to clear him on the more serious count proved the charge was an overstep.
“He wanted to accept responsibility for his conduct right from the outset of the case,” Eisner said.
Wells was seated behind the victim on Flight 2010 from Los Angeles to San Francisco on Oct. 18 when she reclined her seat. The plane had been on the tarmac for more than two hours beyond its scheduled 7:10 p.m. take off.
Wells complained to a flight attendant who told the victim she had to return her seat to the upright position. Once the plane took off from the Los Angeles International Airport, she reclined the seat again.
At that point, Wells put his hands around the woman’s throat for five to 10 seconds, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
Wells’ attorney argued that his client merely shook the woman after she used an expletive to describe him.
Prosecutors said Wells punched her in the head with a closed fist, but Eisner said no evidence was presented during trial to prove that happened.
The midair disturbance forced the pilot to return to Los Angeles.
At trial, the victim testified that she suffered a concussion, headaches and ringing in her ears as a result of the assault, prosecutors said.
Another passenger seemed to support many of her claims. Comedian Mark Curry, who hosts a radio show in San Francisco, didn’t testify during the trial, but he told NBC Bay Area immediately after the incident occurred that he was on the flight and awoke to the victim’s shouts.
“The woman was saying he grabbed her neck. ‘He choked me, he choked me! He hit me in the head!’” Curry told the station.
Eisner said his client was only trying to get home after a long day.
“Larry feels terrible about the incident,” he said.
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