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

By Gillian Flaccus, AP
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Trial opens for suspect in death of Angels pitcher

SANTA ANA, Calif. — A man charged with the drunken driving murders of promising Los Angeles Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and two other people showed total disregard for the risks of drinking and driving on the night of the deadly crash, a prosecutor said Tuesday.

“The evidence will show that this case is about an evening of pure indulgence and a night of total disregard,” Orange County Deputy District Attorney Susan Price said in her opening statement to jurors.

Andrew Gallo, 23, has pleaded not guilty to 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 and survived.

Gallo knew the risks of driving under the influence because he had been convicted of a DUI in 2006, had his license suspended and took an alcohol education class, Price told jurors.

“He had been in a collision, his two brothers had been in a collision, a court told him, a teacher told him, his family told him. and he disregarded all of that,” the prosecutor said.

Family members of the victims dabbed away tears as Price spoke. Adenhart’s parents were not in the courtroom.

Gallo could face a sentence of more than 50 years to life in prison if convicted. He wore a dark blue shirt, black pants and glasses in court, where his defense attorney Jacqueline Goodman was expected to begin her opening statement later in the day.

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

Adenhart had hurled six scoreless innings in front of his proud father and a cheering hometown crowd in Anaheim hours before a minivan collided with the car he was riding in on April 9, 2009.

Police said Gallo, the driver of the minivan, 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.

Moments after the crash, he was overhead telling someone on his cell phone, “Oh (expletive), I’m in trouble,” Price said.

Authorities alleged that Gallo fled on foot and was found by police running on the shoulder of a freeway several miles away.

Adenhart died during surgery. His death shocked fans and players who had watched the young standout battle back from elbow surgery to earn his place in the majors.

Goodman has contended that Adenhart’s fame has led to excessive publicity that could taint the jury. Judges repeatedly denied her petitions to move the trial.

Goodman has also criticized the district attorney’s decision to charge the case as murder and believes the move was motivated by Adenhart’s fame. Jurors will not have the option of finding Gallo guilty of the lesser charge if they decide to convict.

Price has said it wasn’t true that Gallo’s case was 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.

Judge Richard Toohey earlier this month 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 age 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 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.”

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