Commentary

Jim Leyritz's long, hard legal road

The evidence against him is powerful as his DUI manslaughter trial approaches

Originally Published: September 17, 2010
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

The view from our Courtside Seat isn't always pretty. The Jim Leyritz case is a perfect example of the grim, sad junction that sometimes happens with sports and the law. (Then again, the view has its moments, too. See the second item in this week's column.) Today, we start with …

Red light, green light

Shortly after 3 a.m. on Dec. 28, 2007, Jim Leyrtiz was behind the wheel of his Ford Expedition trying to make it home from an alcohol-fueled celebration of his 44th birthday.

He thought the light was green as he entered an intersection in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Fla. One eyewitness thought Leyritz's light was red. Another thought it was amber. But everyone agrees the collision between Leyritz's SUV and a car driven by a 30-year-old mother of two was horrific.

[+] EnlargeJim Leyritz
Larry Marano/Getty ImagesThe settlement of a wrongful death claim won't help Leyritz, shown leaving a 2008 arraignment here, at his trial.

It killed the young mother, Fredia Ann Veitch, who also had been drinking and was not wearing a seat belt.

When Leyritz's blood alcohol was measured at 0.14 (nearly twice the legal limit) three hours after the collision, Leyritz was arrested and charged with DUI and vehicular manslaughter.

That night was the beginning of a hellish 33 months for Leyritz, who spent most of his 11 seasons in the major leagues with the Yankees and also played for the Angels, Rangers, Red Sox, Padres and Dodgers. He was subsequently arrested twice for drinking in violation of the terms of his bail bond. He was charged with domestic assault in an incident with his former wife. (The charge is still pending.) Veitch's family filed a wrongful death case against him. In May 2009, he spent some time in a psychiatric ward. The Yankees shunned their 1996 World Series hero, refusing to invite him to team reunions and celebrations and forcing him to set up his own autograph booth on a card table outside Yankee Stadium. And his career as a celebrity motivational speaker dried up completely.

Leyritz apparently had blown through the $11 million he earned playing baseball and was forced to seek aid from the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), a charity for troubled players, to support himself and his three sons.

No one would come near him despite his claims of innocence.

"My light was never red when I entered the intersection," Leyritz told the New York Daily News in November 2008. "I was not at all responsible for the accident or her death. She went through the light. She hit me."

In a trial that was to begin on Monday morning in Courtroom 940 in the Circuit Court of Broward County, Leyrtiz was hoping to tell his story to a jury and seek some level of vindication. But after a series of rulings by Judge Marc Gold in a pretrial hearing on Thursday afternoon, Leyritz may be forced to wait even longer to get his day in court.

Leyritz and his attorney, David Bogenschutz, one of the great criminal defense lawyers in Florida, had hoped to argue to the jury that in the moments before the collision, Veitch was texting messages, was not wearing her seat belt, and was even more intoxicated (0.16 blood alcohol level) than Leyrtiz.

But Gold ruled Thursday that the victim's behavior would not be admissible in the trial, prompting Bogenschutz to ask for a delay to allow him to appeal. As of Friday, the start of the trial was on hold.

[+] EnlargeJim Leyritz
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyLeyritz took in a game between the Marlins and his old team, the Yankees, in June 2009.

Whatever the outcome of the appeal, Leyritz and Bogenschutz face serious challenges at the trial. It will feature four witnesses who saw or heard parts of the collision, experts in accident reconstruction who will estimate the speeds of the vehicles, and experts in blood alcohol who will describe levels of driving impairment.

One indication of the challenge facing Leyrtiz and Bogenschutz is the settlement made a few months ago in the wrongful death case. Leyritz's auto insurance carrier looked over the evidence and concluded that it should pay Veitch's family the maximum allowed for a liability claim under Leyritz's policy. Insurance companies will do anything to avoid paying the limits of a liability policy. They will delay. They will obfuscate the facts of an accident. And they will argue and stretch the law.

They pay the limits voluntarily only when the policy holder's guilt is overwhelming.

The payment of the liability limit in this case means that a group of professional claims analysts and lawyers at Leyritz's insurance company decided that he was at fault.

In addition to the payment of the maximum liability limit, Leyritz has voluntarily agreed to pay the Veitch family $100,000 of his own money. It will be an onerous burden for Leyrtiz. Beginning in April, he'll pay them $1,000 each month for 100 months from money he hopes to be able to earn. It is yet another compelling indication of the strength of the evidence against Leyritz.

In the face of all that, his best chance in the trial on the DUI vehicular homicide charges might be his own testimony.

"We don't know now for certain, but it is likely that he will testify," Bogenschutz told ESPN.com.

If Leyritz, who can be charming and persuasive, can convince the jurors that the light was green or even amber that fateful night, he has a chance to avoid a conviction that would result in incarceration.

Whenever it finally begins, the trial is expected to last three to four weeks. After 33 months and counting in a form of purgatory, it's Leyritz's only hope for relief.

Exhibit A: Your … uhh, 'briefs'

For Jennifer Delarosa and Nicolle Bate, it must have seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime.

As last February's Lingerie Bowl approached, two members of the Los Angeles Temptation were caught violating the Lingerie Football League's curfew. Instead of returning to the team hotel by the late-evening deadline, both women returned to the hotel the next morning, just in time to be dismissed from the squad.

[+] EnlargeNicole Bate
Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic/Getty ImagesNicolle Bate wasn't so unhappy with the Lingerie Football League that she didn't attend a mini-camp for the Los Angeles Temptation in April.

To replace them, team officials turned to Delarosa and Bate. If they would pay their airfare from Los Angeles to Florida, the team offered, they could play with the Temptation and enjoy the fame and notoriety that can only come from participation in the LFL championship. So they joined up, helped the Temptation to a victory, and became eligible for a share of the $100,000 bonus and other benefits.

LFL chairman Mitch Mortaza insists that the league offered to pay the replacement players for practices and the championship game, as well as their share of the bowl bonus.

But the players claim the LFL has failed to make any of those promised payments.

They've hired a lawyer in Ventura, Calif., and they've filed suit under the California Labor Code claiming that the LFL and the Temptation owe them hourly wages, overtime, airfare and the bowl bonus. Another player who also claims she was not paid joined the two replacement players in their suit. They're asking for a total of $38,000.

Mortaza is furious, and is planning his own litigation against the three players.

"We offered everything that we owed them," he told ESPN.com. "They refused it and have chosen litigation to try to extort money from us. They are trying to massage the law, and we will fight them."

Mortaza explained that the LFL has played 20 games per year since 2004, and this is the first time anyone has claimed the league hasn't paid its bills.

It is worthy of note that the other 12 members of the Temptation have not joined the three who filed suit.

It's a dispute the LFL is likely to win, in part because it has treated all of its players as independent contractors since the league opened in 2004. These three players claim they are employees and so are entitled to employement benefits that are not available to independent contractors.

But by the time it's over, the legal papers filed in the litigation will weigh more than the uniforms the players wore in the Lingerie Bowl.

Throw in an amicus curiae, and you got a deal

It's the first trade in sports history that includes a lawyer to be named later.

Donald Fehr left the Major League Baseball Players Association -- after 26 years of frequently brilliant leadership and a bumpy ride through baseball's Steroid Era -- and took over the helm of the NHL Players' Association. His move to the hockey union was an interesting process. Working pro bono as a consultant, he helped the floundering players with a new constitution, an investigation into the circumstances of the dismissal of former executive director Paul Kelly, and a search for a new executive director.

In that search, the players and Fehr followed the Dick Cheney model. After George W. Bush was first nominated for the presidency, he asked Cheney to lead the search for a vice presidential candidate. Cheney looked around and, lo and behold, discovered that the best-qualified candidate was Cheney himself.

[+] EnlargeDonald Fehr
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesIt was a long strange trip from the MLBPA to the NHLPA for Donald Fehr.

Although the hockey players spent months gathering and interviewing candidates, they had the same kind of lo-and-behold moment of clarity. They hired Fehr to be the union's fifth leader in six tumultuous years.

Within days, the lawyer to be named later emerged. The MLBPA hired Ian Penny, former counsel to the hockey players and an interim executive director, as a labor counsel. The swap was complete.

Agents, union lawyers, sports law professors and attorneys for owners and commissioners are abuzz with shock and questions about the Fehr-for-Penny deal.

What roles, if any, did Fehr and Penny play in the dismissal of the impressive Kelly, who was trying to put the hockey union back together after a disastrous season-long lockout? Were they a part of the anti-Kelly cabal?

Will Eric Lindros, an out-front member of the anti-Kelly group, now return to the NHLPA?

What does Penny bring to the MLBPA? He once worked for the National Labor Relations Board and may have some expertise in its culture and operations. But his service at the NHLPA consisted of little more than his role in the lockout disaster and whatever part he played in the Kelly dismissal. Baseball players have enjoyed brilliant leadership from the likes of Fehr, Gene Orza and Michael Weiner. It is difficult to see how Penny fits into this group.

What does Fehr bring to the NHLPA? The central issue between owners and players is the salary cap that resulted from the lockout. Fehr has zero experience with salary caps. He spent his career in the MLBPA avoiding salary caps. And now he's up against NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who has been working on complex salary cap issues on a daily basis since his years as NBA commissioner David Stern's top lawyer.

It would be nice to be able to say that we'll know the answers to these questions sometime soon. But that isn't likely. Fehr is the most articulate lawyer I have encountered in two decades of sports journalism, but that doesn't mean he wants to tell you anything.

To answer these questions and to determine whether the hockey players have managed to solve any of their numerous labor problems, we must watch closely. It would be a good idea for the players to do the same thing.

Semi-strange bedfellows

Links between sports and politics aren't always apparent, but they can be important. Here are two examples:

• President Barack Obama may soon be in the market for a new chief of staff if Rahm Emanuel, as expected, decides to run for mayor of Chicago. The President would be wise to look seriously at Philip Schiliro, his top liaison to Capitol Hill. It was Schiliro, as chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who quickly mastered the Mitchell report and quarterbacked the hearings that have now led to the perjury and obstruction of Congress charges against Roger Clemens. I talked with Schiliro and watched him in operation. Obama could use some help right now, and Schiliro is the right guy to provide it.

• Who is the most important pollster in a political world that relies on polling? He might be Scott Rasmussen, the son of ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen. Using highly sophisticated techniques that produce surprisingly accurate results, Scott Rasmussen has become the go-to guy for politicians in both parties, as well as the Tea Party movement. His tracking polls of the presidential election in 2008 were the first to show that Obama surged ahead of John McCain during the economic collapse in October, and Rasmussen has been on the money ever since.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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