O'Brien Trial Opens with Graphic Account

By Joseph A. Reaves
The Arizona Republic [Phoenix AZ]
January 21, 2004

Testimony got under way Tuesday in the hit-and-run trial of Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien with a sobbing witness telling jurors the former church leader sped away from a grisly accident that catapulted a 250-pound man onto the hood of the bishop's car and crushed the windshield.

Emmie Adson of Tuba City said she followed the bishop's car and wrote down his license-plate number because she was horrified that anyone would drive off after such a violent collision with a pedestrian.

"I would have felt guilty if I didn't (help)," Adson said, breaking into tears. "It would've ate me up."

Adson, 40, was one of three witnesses to take the stand as the prosecution opened its case against O'Brien. The defense, which contends O'Brien never knew he hit a person, will put on its case after the prosecution rests.

During his 42-minute opening statement, Deputy Maricopa County Attorney Anthony Novitsky painted a graphic word picture, saying the pedestrian O'Brien hit was flipped into the air "almost like a football player hit by a chop block."

Novitsky said 43-year-old Jim L. Reed landed on the hood of O'Brien's car and his head and shoulder shattered the windshield.

"It was a very violent impact," Novitsky said. "With what must have sounded like a thunderclap, the windshield literally exploded."

Novitsky used a giant screen in the front of the courtroom to project five color photographs of the shattered windshield, including one taken from inside the car that showed glass shards scattered across the dashboard.

Lead defense attorney Tom Henze was quick to acknowledge in his 53-minute opening statement that the bishop hit Reed, left the scene and never called police. He was arrested 36 hours later.

But Henze reminded the jury of seven men and five women that O'Brien is charged with "leaving the scene of a serious or fatal accident" and can be convicted only if the state provides "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the former leader of the Phoenix Diocese knew he hit a person.

"Whatever happened out there happened very, very quickly," Henze said. "It happened in milliseconds . . . the same as a blinking of an eye. You couldn't see it if you were looking for it."

Henze used a 7-foot map to show the accident scene near 19th and Glendale avenues in Phoenix, then put six magnetic signs on the map to argue why O'Brien never knew he hit a pedestrian.

Five of the yellow magnetic signs with red lettering read: "Darkness, dark clothes, night vision, visual noise and unexpected."

Henze said O'Brien was listening to the radio and never saw, or had any reason to expect to see, Reed, who was wearing dark clothes on a dark night.

"It just didn't occur to Bishop Thomas O'Brien that a person had come into contact with his windshield," he said. "It just never entered his mind."

The defense attorney then paused before putting up the sixth magnet, which read: "Condition of pedestrian."

"We have no doubt that Mr. Reed was a real good man," Henze said. "But he was human and like all of us, he was subject to human failings."

Henze said the defense would present evidence to show that Reed had a blood-alcohol level more than twice the state's legal limit for driving when he tried to cross Glendale Avenue and was killed.

Reed's family and friends, all Navajos, sat impassively in the front two rows of Judge Stephen A. Gerst's fourth-floor courtroom. Two family elders listened on portable headsets to a Navajo translation of the proceedings.

O'Brien, who is believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. Catholic official to stand trial on felony criminal charges, thumbed his rosary beads during the morning session and sat with his fingers intertwined in prayerlike fashion through much of the afternoon.

In a twist of fate, two of the witnesses also are Navajos.

Adson's former boyfriend, Herbert Yazzie, was the first to the take the stand. He testified he had turned around to quiet his fidgeting 2-year-old son in the back seat of a pickup when he saw Reed's "whole body flipped up in the air."

"(The car that hit him) went by us real fast and picked up speed," Yazzie said. "I never seen something like that before."

Adson was driving the pickup and testified she looked in her side mirror as soon as Yazzie told her he'd seen a pedestrian get hit.

"He was just coming down head first into the pavement," Adson said, beginning to choke up.

Novitsky asked if that upset her.

"Yes, it still does," she said, reaching for a box of tissues on the front of the witness stand. "Just seeing somebody like that and somebody just driving off . . . "

She let the sentence end there.