Attorneys Dispute over O'Brien's 'Knowledge' in Hit-Run

By Walter Berry
The Arizona Star [Phoenix AZ]
January 20, 2004

Bishop Thomas O'Brien's car struck a pedestrian with a "very violent impact" that left the man's blood and hair on the vehicle, and O'Brien never stopped, a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday.

But a defense attorney said O'Brien, the former head of the Phoenix Roman Catholic Diocese, did not see the jaywalking victim and didn't know the man was fatally injured.

O'Brien, 68, is on trial for leaving the scene of an accident that killed pedestrian Jim Reed, 43, in June.

In his opening statement, Deputy County Attorney Anthony Novitsky urged jurors not to focus on who caused the accident or what killed Reed but on O'Brien's failure to stop.

Reed was struck by two cars on the night of June 14; O'Brien's was believed to have been the first. Both vehicles drove off, and neither the second car nor its driver have been located.

"He was hit by the vehicle driven by Thomas O'Brien. It was a very violent impact," Novitsky said. "One would have expected the driver of the vehicle to hit the brakes. That vehicle did not stop. It accelerated away from the scene."

The prosecutor said fibers from Reed's shirt were found embedded in O'Brien's car windshield. Hair, tissue and blood from Reed were also found on the car, Novitsky added.

Tom Henze, the lead defense attorney for O'Brien, told jurors in his opening statement that Reed had a blood alcohol level more than twice the state's legal limit for driving when he was struck near a northwest Phoenix intersection.

Henze said O'Brien "was not intoxicated or impaired at all" at the time of the accident and was driving at the posted 40 mph speed limit.

"Bishop O'Brien's best memory is that he was driving along listening to music, wearing his glasses and beginning to anticipate a major intersection. He was coasting. His foot was off the accelerator," Henze said. "He was not anticipating Mr. Reed being in the highway ... where no driver would expect a pedestrian to be. Bishop O'Brien simply did not see him."

Henze also said that Reed was wearing dark clothing, which might have been a contributing factor to the accident.

O'Brien told police he didn't realize he hit a person and thought his car had been struck by a rock or an animal.

But that was 36 hours after the accident and after he telephoned his secretary for help in getting his windshield repaired.

Henze said O'Brien was not trying to be deceptive because he drove his car to a church function in suburban Scottsdale the day after the accident.

"It just didn't occur to Bishop O'Brien that a person's body hit his windshield. It just never entered his mind," Henze told jurors.

During his statement, Novitsky showed slides of Reed, a carpenter and father of two, and of the accident scene. Members of his family sat in the front row of the courtroom but declined to comment on the trial.

O'Brien, wearing his customary cleric's collar and a silver cross, sat at the defense table. It's still unclear if he will testify in the trial, which Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Stephen Gerst said could last a month.

If convicted, O'Brien could face a sentence ranging from probation to three years and nine months in prison.

O'Brien, who led the Phoenix diocese's nearly 480,000 Catholics for more than two decades, resigned after he was charged.

The accident came during a troubled period for the diocese.

Less than two weeks earlier, prosecutors announced that O'Brien had signed an immunity deal to spare him an indictment on obstruction charges for protecting priests accused of child molestation. As part of the deal, O'Brien agreed he would no longer handle abuse claims.

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