A prosecutor trying to prove murder charges against a suspected drunken driver who killed two people last year argued to jurors Monday that "the car was the bullet and the gas was the trigger."
In an equally impassioned plea, Perry Lee Oakley's defense attorney insisted that justice will be served only if his client is found guilty of manslaughter.
At the close of a six-day trial in Torrance Superior Court, jurors began deliberations Monday after closing arguments by both attorneys. The jury must decide whether Oakley, who is admittedly responsible for the deaths of a 6-year-old boy and his uncle, killed them by accident or with intentional malice.
Oakley faces two counts of murder, two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter, two counts of driving under the influence and causing injury, and one count of leaving the scene of an accident.
The question jurors were asked to grapple with is whether Oakley's decision to speed, run a stop sign and allegedly drive drunk constitutes extreme, malicious negligence toward human life or whether it was the unintentional result of driving drunk.
Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Turk made an impassioned argument for murder, calling Oakley extremely negligent.
Oakley "was so impaired that he couldn't even get two blocks without killing two people," Turk said. "The car was the bullet and the gas was the trigger."
Oakley had just left a party in Gardena when the crash occurred at 11:30 p.m. on April 9, 2011. According to expert testimony, Oakley's Acura was speeding about 14 mph above the residential-zone limit of 25 mph, though no signs were posted on 141st Street as he approached Normandie Avenue. His car didn't slow for a stop sign and instead slammed into a Toyota Camry carrying 6-year-old Sylvester Payne Jr. and his three uncles. They were driving home from a family gathering.
Samuel Dickens, 62, who was in the back seat next to Sylvester, died at the scene. Sylvester had massive brain damage and other injuries. He was declared brain dead after the accident, officials testified.
The driver, Ralph Payne, suffered internal bleeding and other injuries, but survived. The front-seat passenger, Dennis Vann, also survived with injuries.
Michael Ooley, Oakley's defense attorney, argued to jurors in Judge Mark S. Arnold's courtroom that murder charges are inappropriate.
"Have any of you ever driven 14 miles per hour over an unposted speed limit?" Ooley asked. "Are you driving with reckless disregard in that case? Have any of you ever missed a stop sign?"
Ooley tried to shoot holes in the prosecution's evidence that Oakley's blood-alcohol level was about 0.14 at the time of the crash. He asked: What if Oakley drank alcohol after the crash, during the 45 minutes he disappeared from the scene?
Though Oakley acknowledged he had two beers at a party that night, he did not explain why his breath and blood tests returned with levels consistent with drinking seven or eight beers. He was given blood-alcohol tests two and three hours after the crash.
Oakley explained his disappearance by telling police that he was kidnapped and robbed immediately after the crash. But even his attorney acknowledged that was a flimsy alibi. Ooley suggested that, if Oakley's claims that he only drank two beers and was robbed are not credible, then it's also possible his statement that he didn't drink after the crash is a lie.
"The prosecutor says he lied about only drinking two beers and being robbed," Ooley said. "So why is his statement about not drinking after the crash so credible? What if he took a shot to get his courage up to talk to the police? Is that something that sounds reasonable to you?"
Turk argued that Oakley was too well-informed about the dangers of drunken driving to not be convicted of murder. He had attended a court-mandated education program after a 2001 DUI conviction that taught participants how drunken driving can lead to the death of innocent people.
Ooley countered that most people are aware of the dangers of drunken driving, and that doesn't rise to the level of murder.
"The blood of these two good people will cry out to you from the ground," Ooley said. "Perry Oakley's foolish negligence catastrophically changed lives, and I'm asking you to hold him responsible. Convict Perry Oakley of the manslaughter he committed and find him innocent of murder."
Jurors did not return a verdict by the end of the day Monday.
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