O'Brien's History to Be Discussed at Pre-Sentencing

By Joseph A. Reaves
The Arizona Republic
March 12, 2004

Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien returns to court today for the first time as a convicted felon knowing he will have to listen to a parade of witnesses talk about the role he played in covering up sexual abuse and trying to avoid responsibility for other actions in his past.

At least six witnesses will be called by the prosecution in an attempt to persuade Judge Stephen A. Gerst of Maricopa County Superior Court to impose a stiff sentence on O'Brien, who was found guilty Feb. 17 of fleeing the scene of a fatal car-pedestrian accident last summer.

O'Brien's attorneys will present their own witnesses and testimonials to argue for a lighter sentence.

The bishop, who resigned as head of the Phoenix Diocese after his arrest, can be sentenced anywhere from probation to 45 months in prison.

County Attorney Rick Romley refused Thursday to discuss the pre-sentencing hearing or what penalties his deputies would ask the judge to impose. But a records examination by The Arizona Republic indicates prosecutors most often request defendants in similar cases be sentenced to at least six months in county jail along with a fine and community service.

O'Brien is scheduled to be sentenced March 26. Before that, Gerst will hold a pair of hearings to consider arguments from the prosecution and defense on aggravating or mitigating factors they believe should be taken into account in determining the bishop's penalty.

Among witnesses expected to be called by the prosecution at today's hearing are two relatives of Jim L. Reed, the pedestrian who died after being struck by O'Brien's car and another vehicle on June 14.

Prosecutors also are expected to bring in a witness to describe a 2002 incident in which the bishop hit a car in the parking lot of St. Joseph's Hospital and drove away without reporting the accident.

Three family members of boys who were sexually abused by priests are expected to take the stand and testify that O'Brien admonished them not to report the assaults to police.

Two weeks before the fatal hit-and-run accident that led to his conviction, O'Brien publicly admitted he covered up sexual-abuse complaints against priests for more than two decades. That admission came as part of an immunity deal O'Brien negotiated with Romley to avoid being indicted on obstruction of justice charges.

Gerst refused to allow prosecutors to discuss O'Brien's immunity agreement or the sex-abuse scandal that led to it during the bishop's five-week trial on grounds those events were unrelated to the hit-and-run charge.

However, under Arizona law, now that O'Brien has been convicted, prosecutors are allowed to bring up past behavior.

O'Brien's attorneys will be allowed to cross-examine prosecution witnesses. They can call their own witnesses and are expected to introduce scores of letters of support written on the bishop's behalf.

Gerst has scheduled a second pre-sentencing hearing for March 19. Gerst will then consider a separate defense motion for a new trial. The motion is based on instructions he gave jurors to help in their deliberations. Gerst rejected the arguments during the trial.

If the judge denies the new-trial motion, O'Brien will be sentenced March 26. He is the highest-ranking Roman Catholic leader in the United States to be convicted of a felony.


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