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Edith Delgado, left, is released from the San Mateo County Jail, Thursday, June 14, 2007, after posting bail and drives away with her family in Redwood City, Calif., (Ron Lewis/San Mateo County Times)
REDWOOD CITY — When Edith Delgado heard the verdict Thursday afternoon, she broke down in tears and faintly smiled.

Delgado, the 19-year-old Redwood City woman accused of causing the car crash on Highway 101 in Menlo Park last July that killed three people, including two members of the Tongan royal family, was found not guilty of three counts of felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.

"God, what a day. ... I feel terrific," defense attorney Randy Moore proclaimed outside the courtroom. "In my personal opinion, as well as many others', this jury came back with the right decision."

After a 21/2-week trial, the jury convicted Delgado of lesser charges: three counts of misdemeanor manslaughter for her role in the deaths of Tonga's Prince Tu'ipelehake, 54, and Princess Kaimana Tu'ipelehake, 45, and their driver, Vinisia Hefa, 36, of East Palo Alto.

Delgado's Ford Mustang sideswiped the Tongans' Ford Explorer, causing the SUV to roll several times and land on its roof, killing all three occupants.

Prosecutors had argued that Delgado was speeding and weaving in and out of traffic while racing with a black Cadillac Escalade in the moments before the crash, using the freeway as "her playground," according to prosecutor Aaron Fitzgerald.

Throughout the trial, Fitzgerald portrayed her to the jury as a reckless driver with a reputation for fast driving, a love for her sports car and an abiding interest in speed and auto sideshows.

Meanwhile, the defense painted Delgado as an honor student who, like many teenagers, abused her responsibility behind the wheel. Delgado, the defense implied, was a terrified teenager victimized by prosecutors who distorted the truth to tarnish her image. The defense consistently denied that Delgado had been racing another vehicle, but urged the jury to punish the former high schooler anyway and convict her of misdemeanors

On Thursday the jury finally sided with the defense, and the young woman, who had been facing a maximum of eight years in prison, now will face no more than three — a year for each count of vehicular manslaughter. Even if a judge gives Delgado the maximum sentence, that would mean only about two more years of jail time because of time she has already served.

"God bless the jury system, and God bless this jury," Moore said outside court.

According to jury foreman Frank Johnson III, the debate among the nine-man, three-woman jury over the gross negligence charge was contentious and emotional. According to Johnson, one juror even walked into the jurors' bathroom and screamed in frustration.

"At one point, I wanted to do the same thing," said Johnson, a 43-year-old golf course greenskeeper.

"When I went to bed last night, I thought this was going to be a hung jury," Johnson said Thursday.

The jury, which first leaned 7-5 in favor of conflicting Delgado of gross negligence, turned unanimously against the maximum charge in 21/2days. The deadlock was broken Thursday morning when the jury systematically reviewed each of the individual charges — including speeding, illegal lane changes and reckless driving — and found there was simply not enough evidence to convict Delgado of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.

"Gross negligence calls for a person to have disregard for human life," Johnson said.

The jury was swayed by defense evidence that Delgado had slowed down before making the lane change that resulted in sideswiping the Tongans' Explorer, according to Johnson.

A lawsuit filed against the Ford Motor Co. by the sons of Tongan Prince Tu'ipelehake last week in Santa Clara County Superior Court alleges that the SUV's poor design, not Delgado's behavior, was the principal factor in the Tongans' deaths.

San Jose attorney Richard Alexander, representing the prince's sons and his brother, Mailefihi Tu'ipelehake, described the vehicle as "unstable" because of its high center of gravity. In addition, he said, the vehicle's handling was also compromised by its retrofitting with oversized, underinflated tires, — factors Ford should have warned consumers about, according to Alexander.

Alexander cited Delgado's clipping of the Explorer as a contributing factor in the accident, and accused the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office of "litigation psychosis" in its aggressive prosecution of Delgado.

"Delgado never should have been prosecuted," he said. "For this young student to spend a year in jail, she has more than paid the price of her mistake. She didn't kill anybody. She drove negligently and recklessly and fast, but she didn't kill anyone."

Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe responded that the district attorney's decision to charge Delgado with gross negligence was "entirely appropriate," given the fact that three people died.

Many in the district attorney's office were disappointed by the verdict, Wagstaffe said, but prosecutors respected the jury's decision.

"Nobody is sitting here saying, 'This is an outrage — the jury just missed the boat,'" he said. "This is a jury who I think worked very hard to achieve a fair result."

After the jury announced its verdict, Superior Court Judge John Runde slashed the former high schooler's bail from $1 million to $40,000.

The Delgado family immediately began arranging with Moore to locate a bail bondsman.

About 8:30 p.m. a beaming Delgado left the county jail after posting bail and rode off in a car with her sister and two other young women.

Earlier in the day, Delgado's family celebrated the jury's decision outside the courtroom with hugs, smiles and a solemn remark or two about the fatal crash.

"We're praying for the victims and their families and their loved ones," said Juan Delgado, Edith's older brother. "We're just really happy with the outcome," he added, embracing his mother. "It affected us a lot — my poor mom, my dad."

After the packed courtroom emptied Thursday, father Jose Delgado slipped out and leaned his head against the wall. When asked how he felt, he smiled and said in Spanish, "Better, better."

Tongan Prince Tu'ipelehake, 50, whose brother lost his life in the accident, was visiting friends in Dallas when he heard the news of the verdict.

"I respect the judiciary's decision," the prince said. "Whatever the verdict is, it's not going to bring back my late brother or my sister-in-law and their driver.

"In a way," he said, "the decision's good. (Edith Delgado) is a young lady, and she's got her whole life in front of her, and I think the sentence is appropriate for what happened."

"There's no ill feeling toward Edith Delgado on my behalf," Tu'ipelehake said. "I just hope that she's learned a lesson."

Delgado will return to court for sentencing on Aug. 24.

Staff writer Michael Manekin can be reached at (650) 348-4331 or mmanekin@sanmateocountytimes.com.