SANTA ANA, Calif. » A jury convicted a construction worker of murder yesterday for a drunken-driving crash that killed promising Los Angeles Angels rookie pitcher Nick Adenhart and two of his friends.
It was the second DUI conviction for Andrew Gallo, 23, who held white rosary beads and occasionally looked up at jurors as they returned their verdicts.
As he was led away in handcuffs, Gallo glanced over his shoulder at sobbing relatives of the victims gathered in the Orange County courtroom.
"What this case has shown is that the accelerator, the gas pedal on an automobile in the wrong hands is as dangerous as the trigger on a gun," Nigel Pearson, the father of 25-year-old victim Henry Pearson, said outside court. "And in the wrong hands, it can devastate the lives of many, many people."
Gallo was convicted on three counts of second-degree murder and single counts of drunken driving, hit-and-run driving, and driving under the influence of alcohol and causing great bodily injury.
He faces 50 years to life in state prison at his scheduled sentencing on Dec. 10.
His attorney, Jacqueline Goodman, said Gallo would appeal.
"I think it’s tragic," she told reporters. "I think there’s been a miscarriage of justice." She previously said her client did not intend to kill anyone.
Prosecutors said they charged the case as a second-degree murder instead of the lesser charge of manslaughter because Gallo had a previous DUI conviction, had specific knowledge of the dangers of drinking and driving from his own experience, and had signed a court form from the earlier case saying he understood he could be charged with murder if he drove drunk again and killed someone.
To win a murder conviction, prosecutors had to show Gallo acted with implied malice, intentionally drove drunk, acted with a conscious disregard for human life, and knew from his personal experience that he could kill someone.
Adenhart, 22, died just hours after pitching six scoreless innings in his season debut. Pearson and Courtney Stewart, 20, also died in the April 9, 2009, collision in Fullerton. Passenger Jon Wilhite was severely injured.
Orange County district attorney Tony Rackauckas said it was the 11th DUI-related murder conviction in the county since 2008.
"People are dying here," Rackauckas told reporters. "We want to get the message out there as well as we can that people will be prosecuted for murder when they engage in this type of conduct."
Jurors, who began deliberations Thursday, said they had intense discussions and were well-aware that Gallo had not only ruined the lives of the victims’ families but also his own.
"It was emotional," juror Beth Smith said after leaving the courtroom. "I think a lot of us lost sleep over this."
Her eyes welling with tears, Stewart’s mother said she felt relieved to finally have a verdict.
"It won’t bring Courtney back, but I know she’s looking down on us and she’s happy," said Carrie Stewart-Dixon, who wore a pink and white bracelet bearing her daughter’s name. "It was justice for the kids — and all our families."
Angels pitcher Jered Weaver said he found out about the verdicts in a text message from a team official.
"Obviously, we’re glad to see that the guy got what was coming for him, but that’s pretty much all I can say. Hopefully it put a little closure to what the families had to deal with," Weaver said.
Said Angels manager Mike Scioscia: "There’s certainly no joy involved, but I think it’s some closure for a number of families that have been just going through the worst nightmare for a family."
"Nothing that happened today is ever going to bring Nick, Henry and Courtney back or erase that tragedy in the life of the kid who survived, Jon Wilhite. But I think it inches all of us toward a sense of peace, and we’re just going to continue to move on," he said.
Prosecutors alleged during the two-week trial that Gallo, whose blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit, spent hours drinking beers and shots with his stepbrother at three different bars before running a red light and T-boning the car driven by Stewart.
Prosecutor Susan Price told jurors that Gallo had been repeatedly warned by friends, family and court officials about the dangers of drinking and driving, but his arrogance and need to party prevented him from learning the lesson.
Goodman contended the district attorney’s office had overstepped by charging Gallo with murder.
She said her client believed his stepbrother was his designated driver and only drove after his stepbrother became too intoxicated and asked him to take the wheel. By that point, she argued, Gallo was too drunk to realize the consequences of driving drunk.
During the trial, prosecutors played a videotaped interview in which Gallo told police he didn’t remember driving and apologized to the families of the victims.