Opening statements to begin in Adenhart case
SANTA ANA – The night he died, rookie Los Angeles Angels player Nick Adenhart pitched the best game of his brief major league career, throwing six scoreless innings as his proud father and thousands of cheering fans looked on.
Hours later, the 22-year-old rising star was killed when the car he was riding in collided with a minivan driven by a man whose blood-alcohol level, police said, was nearly three times the legal limit. Adenhart’s sudden death sent the sports world reeling and shocked fans who had watched the young standout battle back from elbow surgery to earn his place in the majors.
Opening statements begin Tuesday in the trial of the man accused of driving drunk and causing the crash that killed Adenhart and two friends, 20-year-old Courtney Stewart and 25-year-old Henry Pearson, as they were on their way to a dance club to celebrate. A fourth passenger was critically injured but survived.
Andrew Thomas Gallo, 23, is charged with three counts of second-degree murder in Orange County Superior Court, as well as felony hit-and-run causing injury or death. Gallo, who has pleaded not guilty, could face a sentence of more than 50 years to life in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors took the unusual step of charging Gallo with murder – and not the lesser count of manslaughter – because he had a prior drunken-driving conviction and was driving on a suspended license, said Deputy District Attorney Susan Price.
He was going nearly twice the speed limit on a residential street when he ran a red light and T-boned Stewart’s car and then fled on foot, she said. Gallo was found by police running on the shoulder of a local freeway several miles away.
Gallo’s defense attorney, Jacqueline Goodman, believes Adenhart’s fame has led to excessive publicity that could taint the jury. Judges have repeatedly denied her petitions to move the trial.
Goodman has also criticized the district attorney’s decision to charge the case as a murder, not a manslaughter, and believes it was motivated by Adenhart’s fame and the publicity surrounding the crash. Jurors will not have the option of finding Gallo guilty of the lesser charge.
“If Nick Adenhart hadn’t been in that car, then my client would not be charged with murder, he’d be charged with gross vehicular manslaughter,” Goodman said. “It’s not as if he’d be getting off lightly, but at least there’d be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Price, the prosecutor, said it wasn’t true that Gallo’s case is 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.
“Nick Adenhart’s prominence and popularity grew as a result of his death. Most people had not heard of him prior to this collision,” she said.
Judge Richard Toohey earlier this month also 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 – anything over .05 is illegal for a driver under age 21 – and another pegged it at .16, twice the standard legal limit. A grand jury expert, however, testified 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 for fear of influencing the proceedings.
Some of Adenhart’s former teammates, however, said his death has left a void both 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,” said third baseman Brandon Wood. “He’s missed terribly as a teammate, as a ballplayer and as a friend.”
The families of Adenhart, Stewart and Pearson have grown close, sitting together at pre-trial hearings and pooling their resources to hire an attorney to represent their privacy interests. That attorney’s work, in part, led the judge to ban still cameras, video cameras and laptops from the courtroom during the trial.
But for some family members, Adenhart’s fame has carried another, unexpected, sting: The loss of their children is sometimes overshadowed by the frenzy surrounding the pitcher’s death.
Pearson, 25, was a law student working toward a career as a sports agent. Stewart, an only child, was a student and former cheerleader at California State University, Fullerton who was studying journalism and wanted to be a sports broadcaster.
A fourth passenger, 24-year-old former Cal State Fullerton baseball player Jon Wilhite, survived even though his skull was separated from his spine by the force of the collision. He declined an interview through a family member.
“I understand why it is because of Nick Adenhart’s name and fame, but our loss is just as bad. It has been hard to listen to news reports and just hear ‘and two others,”‘ said Carrie Stewart-Dixon, Courtney Stewart’s mother.
“She just had so much going for her and she was very energetic and everybody who knew her, loved her,” Stewart-Dixon said of her only child. “And so, it’s just difficult to not see a name attached to my daughter. I really wish people knew more about her.”