Sylvester Payne Jr. spent the last few minutes of his brief life wide-eyed, gasping for breath and trapped in a car seat while rescue workers tried frantically to save him, witnesses testified Monday in a Torrance court.
The 6-year-old boy and his uncle both died after the car they were riding in was T-boned by an alleged drunken driver in Gardena last year. The suspect, Perry Lee Oakley Jr., is now facing seven felony counts, including murder, hit-and-run, and driving under the influence of alcohol.
In the first day of his trial in Judge Mark Arnold's courtroom, Oakley was accused of driving drunk, speeding through a stop sign and plowing into a Toyota Camry full of family members who had just left a barbecue on April 9, 2011.
Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Turk told jurors that Oakley went to a party and began drinking about 7 p.m. He and a friend left the party about 11:30 in Oakley's black Acura, Turk said. Oakley's blood-alcohol-content was later tested at 0.13, nearly two times the legal limit for driving.
The Acura sped through the intersection of Normandie Avenue and 141st Street, and slammed into the Camry carrying Sylvester and his three uncles.
Oakley "never broke, never hit his brakes, never stopped, never paused, and went straight into the side of the car where Sylvester was sitting," Turk told jurors in her opening statement. "He never tried to render aid, never called 911."
Oakley, who was 33 at the time of the accident, got out of his wrecked Acura and spoke to a few people who had run over to help, witnesses testified. But then he disappeared for about a half-hour before returning and submitting to field sobriety tests, Turk said.
Oakley faces two counts of murder for the deaths of Sylvester and his uncle, Samuel Dickens, 62, who was also sitting in the back seat of the Camry. The driver, Ralph Payne, was critically injured in the crash but survived. Dennis Vann, another passenger, survived with several fractured bones.
The family had just left the barbecue at Payne's home when the crash occurred. Payne had grilled steaks, cooked baked potatoes and made salad for the large family. They had gathered because Vann was in town from San Francisco to pick up his ill brother.
Sylvester was visiting his great-uncle's house that weekend because he liked to play with a 7-year-old girl who also was there for the party, said the boy's mother, Johnay Payne. The mother, grandmother, and other family members watched Monday's testimony, occasionally crying.
"This is like the funeral all over again," Johnay Payne said. "I've dealt with him not being here but I haven't dealt with how he's not here - until now. That he was taken by a drunk driver. I feel empty and alone, I feel so lost."
Johnay Payne was in the process of legally adopting Sylvester but had raised him since he was a baby while his mother struggled with drug problems, she said. He was in first grade at 42nd Street Elementary School, where he had perfect attendance and was known for giving lots of hugs, she said.
Oakley sat still and somber through the first day of testimony against him. Audio recordings were played from 911 calls and a tape of Gardena Police Officer Louie Schwartz trying to help the family in the Camry. When Schwartz arrived at the accident scene, Dickens was slumped over in the back seat, apparently dead. Sylvester was gasping for breath and staring ahead, but not responding to Schwartz's questions.
"He was hyperventilating like a fish out of water," Schwartz said, stopping briefly to cry. "I couldn't help him. His eyes were wide. He seemed immobilized by his seat belt. He was rocking a little back and forth."
The car doors had to be cut away to remove Payne and Sylvester from the Camry. The child died shortly afterward, and Payne spent a month in the hospital recovering from internal bleeding and other injuries.
Payne testified on Monday that he called several family members and police while he sat trapped in the car, unable to turn his head to see if Dickens and Sylvester were alive.
"I couldn't get out," Payne said, stopping intermittently to cry. "The only thing I could do was call his name. I couldn't turn my head. I called to Sam but he didn't respond. I called Sylvester's name and he didn't respond. There were people there but they couldn't get the door open."
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