Judge: Jurors Can't Hear about Bishop's Immunity Deal

Arizona Daily Sun [Phoenix AZ]
December 13, 2003

PHOENIX (AP) -- Prosecutors can't tell jurors at the hit-and-run trial of a Roman Catholic bishop that the church leader signed a deal that spared him indictment on allegations he protected priests accused of child molestation, a judge ruled Friday.

Superior Court Judge Stephen Gerst also forbid prosecutors from bringing up the mounting pressure Bishop Thomas O'Brien felt to resign around the time he signed the immunity deal and hit a jaywalker with his car.

The leader of 430,000 Catholics in Arizona quit his position over the Phoenix diocese in June after he was charged with leaving the scene of the accident that killed 43-year-old Jim Reed.

The bishop, whose trial is expected to begin Jan. 12, maintains he thought he hit a dog or a cat or that someone had thrown a rock at his vehicle.

O'Brien's attorneys, meanwhile, said they located a vehicle that could have hit Reed after the bishop's car struck him.

Even though police believed that more than one car hit Reed, they focused completely on O'Brien, said Tom Henze, an attorney for the bishop.

Shortly after the accident, an officer followed the car that O'Brien's attorneys believe could be the second vehicle, said Glen Gardner, commander of the Phoenix Police Department's traffic bureau.

Even though it was considered suspicious, the car didn't match the license number of O'Brien's vehicle, for which police were looking. Still, the officer radioed in the car's license number but didn't include it in a police report, Gardner said.

At the time, police hadn't yet begun to suspect more than one car had hit Reed, Gardner said.

O'Brien's attorneys found the license plate number on a radio transmission tape and located the car, Gardner said.

"We should have noticed that piece of information on the tape," said Gardner.

It's not known whether that vehicle was involved in the accident, but police had looked for leads into a second car, Gardner said.

O'Brien's attorneys located the car, bought it, put it in storage and plan to turn it over to authorities so it can be analyzed.

Prosecutors argued the immunity deal, sexual abuse charges against priests and pressure for O'Brien to resign could have shed light on the bishop's motive to flee the scene.

"It's absolutely the most prejudicial kind of thing you could ask a jury to consider," Henze said.

The judge questioned whether those developments had an impact on the bishop's state of mind at the time of the accident.

"I have difficulty with the speculative nature with attributing certain things and saying that's relevant," Gerst said.

The judge ruled O'Brien's lawyers could introduce evidence of Reed's blood alcohol level. Tests revealed the pedestrian's blood alcohol level was more than twice the 0.08 legal limit for driving in Arizona.

"That's just factual information," the judge said.

Prosecutor Mitch Rand said telling jurors about Reed's blood alcohol level would be "a smear campaign."

O'Brien's attorneys say the blood alcohol level is relevant because Reed's drinking could have affected his coordination.

The judge also ruled that statements O'Brien made to police, relatives and other priests after the hit-and-run can't be introduced at trial.

But Gerst left open the possibility that attorneys can revisit the issue later in the case.

The judge also said prosecutors can't introduce information about an October 2002 incident in which O'Brien's car hit a parked car.

Prosecutors said O'Brien scraped the side of the vehicle while trying to park, looked at the damage and then walked away


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