Driver was on drugs and ‘had no clue that he hit a person,’ says defense in DUI murder trial
A driver accused of running over and killing a bicyclist in Newport Beach last year was so strung out on heroin and other drugs that he thought he had run into a parked car, not a human being, according to the man’s defense attorney.
“He had no clue that he hit a person,” lawyer Brian Gurwitz told jurors Tuesday on the first day of trial for Neil Storm Stephany, a 24-year-old Huntington Beach resident accused of slamming his Toyota Tacoma into the cyclist on Oct. 19 and driving away.
The impact killed Shaun Eagleson, 30, of Fountain Valley, according to prosecutors, who charged Stephany with murder.
In court Tuesday, a woman who testified that she witnessed the crash said Eagleson watched as the pickup barreled toward him at about 5 p.m. along East Coast Highway near Crystal Cove.
“He turned and looked at the truck,” Sahar Zandpour said from the witness stand.
But there was no way for Eagleson to avoid the collision, and the vehicle hit him without slowing down, she said.
The truck stopped for a few seconds but drove off again, Zandpour said.
Before the Tacoma hit Eagleson, Zandpour said, it was speeding and swerving into lanes on the other side of the road. It also rolled over a curb, she said.
At one point, she said, the driver had his eyes closed as he passed Zandpour’s car.
Shortly after the crash, Newport Beach police arrested Stephany near Fashion Island, and he failed a field sobriety test, according to the Orange County district attorney’s office.
Prosecutor Jennifer Walker told jurors that Stephany knew the dangers of drunk or drugged driving and chose to get behind the wheel anyway.
“He knows he’s intoxicated and could kill someone,” she said as she showed slides of Eagleson’s mangled bike, a dented guardrail and asphalt streaked with his blood.
Stephany pleaded guilty in 2011 to misdemeanor driving under the influence. As part of that plea, he was admonished that he could be charged with murder if he drove while impaired again and killed someone, Walker said.
Stephany also pleaded guilty in 2010 to felony possession of heroin with intent to sell and to felony assault and possession of a controlled substance in 2013.
During Gurwitz’s opening statement Tuesday, he told jurors that prosecutors won’t be able to prove their allegation that Stephany showed disregard for human life.
Gurwitz said Stephany injected heroin around 3a.m. the day of the crash. But he also was taking two prescription medications designed to treat his addiction, Gurwitz said.
The combination of drugs had such a profound effect on Stephany’s system that at some point he had no idea what was going on around him, Gurwitz said.
At the time of the crash, Gurwitz added, Stephany planned to check into a rehabilitation program to get treatment for his heroin addiction.
Stephany may be guilty of many things, Gurwitz said, but “he is not guilty in this trial of murder.”
If Stephany is convicted of murder, he could be sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
About a dozen of Eagleson’s friends and family members squeezed into the small courtroom to watch the first day of the proceedings.
According to his family, Eagleson was a talented musician who loved biking across Orange County and along the stretch of highway where he was killed.
One trial observer passed a package of tissues to the middle of the audience, where Eagleson’s widow, Sandra, sat, dressed in black.
Her husband’s death devastated her, Sandra Eagleson told the Daily Pilot shortly after the crash.
“I never realized how physically you can feel your heart disappearing,” she said at the time.
After listening to testimony Tuesday morning, she broke away from the group and waited silently at the far edge of a bench in the courthouse hallway.
She looked steadily toward the end of an empty hall as a relative walked up behind her to put a hand on her shoulder.