Opening statements to begin in trial of man accused of killing Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart

By Gillian Flaccus, AP
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Opening statements to begin in Adenhart case

SANTA ANA, Calif. — Rookie Los Angeles Angels player Nick Adenhart died just hours after pitching the best game of his brief major league career, hurling six scoreless innings before his proud father and a cheering hometown crowd.

Adenhart was one of three people killed when the car he was riding in collided with a minivan. Police said the driver, Andrew Gallo, had a blood-alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit and was going 65 mph on a residential street when he ran a red light, causing the April 9, 2009, crash.

Adenhart passed away during surgery later that night. His death sent the sports world reeling and shocked fans who had watched the young standout battle back from elbow surgery to earn his place in the majors.

Opening statements begin Tuesday for Gallo, who is charged with three counts of second-degree murder and a count of felony hit-and-run in the deaths of Adenhart and his two friends, 20-year-old Courtney Stewart and 25-year-old Henry Pearson. A fourth passenger was critically injured but survived.

Gallo, who has pleaded not guilty, could face a sentence of more than 50 years to life in prison if convicted.

Prosecutors took the unusual step of charging Gallo with murder — and not the lesser count of manslaughter — because he had a prior drunken-driving conviction and was driving on a suspended license, said Deputy District Attorney Susan Price.

After the crash, Gallo fled on foot and was found by police running on the shoulder of a local freeway several miles away, she said.

Gallo’s defense attorney, Jacqueline Goodman, believes Adenhart’s fame has led to excessive publicity that could taint the jury. Judges have repeatedly denied her petitions to move the trial.

Goodman has also criticized the district attorney’s decision to charge the case as a murder, not a manslaughter, and believes it was motivated by Adenhart’s fame. Jurors will not have the option of finding Gallo guilty of the lesser charge.

“If Nick Adenhart hadn’t been in that car, then my client would not be charged with murder, he’d be charged with gross vehicular manslaughter,” Goodman said. “It’s not as if he’d be getting off lightly, but at least there’d be a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Price, the prosecutor, said it wasn’t true that Gallo’s case is being handled differently because of Adenhart’s status. Prosecutors in Orange County are increasingly charging drunken-driving deaths as murders, not manslaughters, and formed a special homicide unit two years ago to focus on such cases, she said.

“Nick Adenhart’s prominence and popularity grew as a result of his death. Most people had not heard of him prior to this collision,” she said.

Judge Richard Toohey earlier this month also rejected a defense motion to introduce evidence about the blood-alcohol level of Stewart, who was driving the car in which Adenhart was a passenger.

One test showed Stewart’s blood-alcohol level was .06 — anything over .05 is illegal for a driver under age 21 — and another pegged it at .16, twice the standard legal limit. A grand jury expert, however, testified that Stewart would not have been impaired at the time of the crash and the higher level was likely because of trauma to her body.

The Angels organization declined to comment before the trial for fear of influencing the proceedings.

Some of Adenhart’s former teammates, however, said his death has left a void both on the field and in the locker room.

Pitcher Jered Weaver, one of Adenhart’s closest teammates, still uses his finger to write the rookie’s initials in the dirt on the backside of the pitcher’s mound before every start.

“I think for everybody who knew Nick, there will always be his presence in the clubhouse, even though there might not be a locker there,” said third baseman Brandon Wood. “He’s missed terribly as a teammate, as a ballplayer and as a friend.”

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