Trial in Nick Adenhart's death begins

Updated: September 14, 2010, 10:15 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- A man charged with murder in a drunken-driving crash that killed promising Los Angeles Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and two others spent hours drinking tequila and beer with his stepbrother at three bars before getting behind the wheel of his parents' minivan, a prosecutor said Tuesday.

Andrew Gallo, 23, knew the dangers of driving under the influence because he was convicted of the offense in 2006 and signed court papers indicating he understood that if he killed someone while driving drunk he could be charged with murder, Deputy District Attorney Susan Price told jurors in her opening statement.

"The evidence will show that this case is about an evening of pure indulgence and a night of total disregard," Price said.

Gallo has pleaded not guilty to three counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of the 22-year-old Adenhart, 20-year-old Courtney Stewart and 25-year-old Henry Pearson.

He has also pleaded not guilty to felony hit-and-run and two counts of driving drunk and causing injuries to his stepbrother Raymond Rivera and the fourth person in the other car, Jon Wilhite.

Gallo's blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit at the time of the crash, prosecutors said. He could face a maximum sentence of more than 50 years to life in prison if convicted of all counts.

Gallo's attorney Jacqueline Goodman acknowledged in her opening statement that Gallo drove while intoxicated but stressed that he did not intend to kill anyone. Gallo believed his stepbrother, who pressured him to keep drinking, was his designated driver, she said.

Gallo blacked out before the accident and doesn't know why he was driving, although he assumes he was, she said.

"He did it and he has to live with that for the rest of his life," Goodman said. "But Andrew Gallo is not a murderer."

Prosecutors said they took the unusual step of charging Gallo with second-degree murder -- and not the lesser charge of manslaughter -- in part because of his prior drunken-driving conviction and because he was driving on a suspended license.

Jurors do not have the option of finding Gallo guilty of manslaughter if they decide to convict.

Goodman previously accused the district attorney's office of overcharging the case because of Adenhart's celebrity status. But Tuesday, the judge cut her off twice during her opening statement when she tried to introduce that concept to jurors.

After being admonished, Goodman advised jurors to closely examine the evidence.

"If those are the facts, you don't have a murder," she said. "If those are the facts, then you'll find that he did it, but your job is going to be to determine what 'it' is."

Adenhart's family was not present in court, but Stewart's family members dabbed their eyes during the testimony.

Michael Fell, an attorney hired to represent the privacy interests of the victims' families, said outside court they were angered by Goodman's remarks.

"Three of these families, three of these parents, they lost their children," Fell said. "The person that commits murder is the murderer. For him not to be classified as a murderer is offensive to the family."

Wilhite, the lone survivor from Adenhart's car, was not in court but posted a statement on a website where he offers updates on his recovery. Wilhite's skull was separated from his spine, a condition called internal decapitation that is usually fatal.

"Having a tough time with this all. Can't bring myself to be in the same room as the guy who caused ... my family so much pain. Please, don't mistake me not being there, as not caring," he wrote. "I'm not as tough as I put on to be, but will get through this because I have awesome group... of friends and family."

Data from the minivan showed Gallo accelerated from 55.9 mph to nearly 66 mph in the five seconds before the crash and took his foot off the accelerator one second before impact, Price said. The speed limit on the city street was 35 mph.

"Within seconds of the collision, the defendant turned to his stepbrother and said, 'Run, bitch, run,'" the prosecutor said. "Then he opened the door of the minivan and fled."

The first prosecution witness, Anaheim police homicide Detective Daron Wyatt, testified that he searched for the minivan driver as a crowd of about 60 people gathered and rescue crews worked to help the victims.

Wyatt broke down when asked to describe Stewart, whose body was pulled from the mangled car as he watched. Pearson was also pronounced dead at the scene. Adenhart died later in surgery.

Stewart, a student and former cheerleader at California State University, Fullerton, did not have any external injuries on her body, Wyatt said.

"She was beautiful," he said, adding later that Stewart "looked like she was asleep."

Witness Randy Nunez said he was parked nearby when he heard a loud crash and watched as a man later identified as Gallo got out of the driver's side of the minivan and began walking away.

Nunez said he followed the man in his car because he realized he was fleeing.

"When I got across the street, he was standing there," Nunez recalled, appearing to choke up. "I just wanted to tell him, 'don't do it.' We locked stares for a couple of seconds. He walked away. I followed. I lost him in the crowd."

Police later arrested Gallo on the side of a freeway two miles from the accident scene. Several witnesses who testified, including Nunez, identified Gallo as the minivan driver.

Outside court, Price said it wasn't true that Gallo's case was being handled differently because of Adenhart's status. She said her department has prosecuted 10 drunken-driving cases as murders since 2008.

"Whether the victim is a celebrity or not, if you kill someone under the influence of alcohol in Orange County and you have a prior history ... you will be charged with murder," she said. "That's just a reality."

Judge Richard Toohey previously 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 percent -- anything over .05 percent is illegal for a driver under 21 -- and another pegged it at .16 percent, twice the standard legal limit.

An expert witness testified before a grand jury 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 Orange County Register recently reviewed transcripts of what was supposed to be secret grand jury proceedings in June 2009 that led to Gallo's indictment. The testimony backs the prosecution's assertion of a night of heavy drinking before the deadly accident.

Rivera, testified that their group started drinking at 4 p.m. local time that day and continued for seven hours. The binge included at least one shot of tequila.

According to Rivera, Gallo did become upset when his stepbrother ordered another round of beers because he knew that he had to drive. But, according to the testimony acquired by the Register, Rivera said: "Are you going to turn it down?" and told Gallo that he had spent some of his last money on the beers.

Fullerton Det. Matthew Malone testified that Gallo admitted also drinking shots of a sake-type liquor.

"He said he was buzzed," Malone told the grand jury, according to the Register. "He blanked out pretty much."

Neither Rivera nor Gallo could account for how they got to Fullerton, Calif., where the accident happened. But Rivera did testify, according to the newspaper, that when he came to after impact, Gallo told him to flee.

The Angels organization declined to comment before the trial due to concerns about influencing the proceedings.

Some of Adenhart's former teammates said his death has left a void 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," third baseman Brandon Wood said. "He's missed terribly as a teammate, as a ballplayer and as a friend."

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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