The California criminal defense lawyer for a political activist charged with killing four people while driving drunk told jurors Monday his client was not intoxicated and blamed the other driver for the bloody wreck.
California defense attorney Christopher Wing and prosecutor Albert Locher told the jury in opening statements that Roberto P. Vellanoweth's blood alcohol level tested at .16, twice the legal limit, and that he had three martinis while lunching at a midtown restaurant two hours before the smash-up in March 2007.
Locher, however, assured the panel of seven men and five women he will prove that was not all Vellanoweth had to drink before the head-on collision.
"I can't prove where he was drinking, but I can prove that he had more to drink that day," Locher said.
But the unexpected development was Wing's declaration: "Alcohol had nothing to do with this case. Mr. Vellanoweth was not under the influence of alcohol. There is no doubt he was exceeding the speed limit, but he was not grossly negligent. He tried to avoid an accident."
Wing said Vellanoweth also drank what was described as a "Virgin Kamikaze," presumably a nonalcoholic beverage.
The California criminal defense lawyer said a toxicologist will take the witness stand and explain the science of Vellanoweth's high-blood alcohol content. He said it actually was even higher nearly two hours after the first test.
Vellanoweth, 64, is charged with four counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated in the deaths of Brizchelle Rice-Nash, 21, the driver of the other vehicle; her 19-month-old son, Kamall Osby; her sister, Brittanya Rice-Nash, 17; and family friend Shanice Patrice Carter, 18.
Additionally, he is charged with causing injury while driving his Jeep Cherokee drunk and at excessive speed, with an enhancement for allegedly causing great bodily injury to a fifth occupant of Rice-Nash's Chrysler LeBaron.
That survivor is Brittanya Rice-Nash's high school friend, Tanisha Jackson, who was the prosecution's first witness Monday.
Vellanoweth has been a presence in Sacramento Republican circles, in Latino community affairs and in the Catholic Church for at least 30 years. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stripped him of his post on the Board of Optometry the day after the crash.
On the rainy day of the accident, Vellanoweth attended his regular Monday lunch with friends, mostly retired state employees, at The Distillery, 21st and L streets, Wing told the jury. Later in the day, he decided to visit his mother in south Sacramento.
He was southbound on South Land Park Drive shortly before 4 p.m. As he cleared the four-way stop at 35th Avenue, "he sees a vehicle coming at him in his lane," Wing said. "He watched as long as he could. He saw there was no sign of recognition by the other driver."
Just as Vellanoweth veered into the northbound lane and accelerated to avoid a crash, "the other vehicle came back into its proper lane," the California criminal defense lawyer said.
Lloyd Need, a delivery driver for United Parcel Service, testified Monday that he was eating a sandwich in his truck at the north end of the shopping mall's parking lot when he heard squealing and an engine revving.
He said he looked up and saw a red Cherokee "spinning its tires and fishtailing a bit" as it pulled away from 35th Avenue. He said it sounded like the accelerator was floored.
Need said he looked away and seconds later he heard "a ground-shaking thud."
Locher's California criminal defense lawyer will continue to present his case when the trial resumes today. sandiegodrunkdrivingattorney.net/survey