Phoenix Jury Finds Bishop Guilty in Fatal Hit-and-Run
Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, who was arrested last year for his role in a hit-and-run that killed a carpenter, was found guilty on Tuesday of leaving the scene of a fatal accident.
The 68-year-old bishop, who was ordered to appear at a presentencing hearing on March 12, faces up to 45 months in prison.
As a bailiff read the verdict, Bishop O'Brien's eyes welled and he looked crestfallen. The conviction concluded a three-and-a-half-week trial during which the bishop, who resigned as leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix after his arrest, insisted from the witness stand that he had no idea he had hit a human being with his car while driving home on Glendale Avenue here.
Bishop O'Brien, mild-mannered and soft-spoken, testified that ''the thought never occurred'' to him that he had hit a pedestrian with his 2003 Buick Park Avenue on June 14, although he said that the impact, perhaps from an animal or a rock, had caused ''a loud smash.''
''I would have stopped,'' he said. ''That's the human thing to do. I couldn't imagine not stopping.''
The bishop left the courtroom without comment after the verdict, which was broadcast live on local television stations. A relative of Jim Lee Reed, the man killed in the accident, leaned over the courtroom railing and shook the hand of a member of the prosecution team.
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, who succeeded Bishop O'Brien as leader of the diocese, issued a statement after the verdict, saying: ''This has been a long and difficult process for everyone involved, and I am grateful that it is over. Our prayers continue to be with Bishop O'Brien and his family. He is our brother in Christ, and we shall continue to be one with him in prayer as we await sentencing. Our prayers are also with the Reed family and the people of the Diocese of Phoenix.''
The Maricopa County attorney, Richard M. Romley, who just two weeks before the accident had granted Bishop O'Brien immunity from charges that he had protected priests accused of pedophilia, said in a telephone interview that the verdict ''supports a very important principle, that no one is above the law.''
''It's a sad day, too,'' Mr. Romley went on. ''My gosh, we had to put a bishop on trial for leaving the scene of an accident in which a person died.''
Mr. Romley said Mr. Reed's relatives had been ''quite concerned, because of who the bishop was, that he wouldn't be held accountable.''
About 20 of the relatives visited Mr. Romley's office after the verdict, one bearing an old picture of Mr. Reed's mother with Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona.
About the same time, some of the eight jurors, two of whom were Roman Catholic, spoke with reporters and said they had confined their deliberations to a strict reading of the law under which Bishop O'Brien was being tried, and not to whether Mr. Reed, 43, might have been at fault for jaywalking. Jury members said they focused on the notion that a reasonable person should have known, under the circumstances, that he had hit a human being, especially considering that the car's windshield was shattered.
Erik Mikkelsen, a jury member, said the damage to the windshield was significant. ''Obviously it didn't happen from a little bird flying into the window,'' Mr. Mikkelsen said.
Jury members said nevertheless that they felt sympathy for the bishop, believed to be the highest-ranking American Catholic ever to be convicted for such a crime.
''We all went through a great deal of emotion,'' the jury foreman, Lois Dopler, said. ''We have the utmost respect for the bishop.''
Bishop O'Brien, who had led the diocese here since 1981, admitted in testimony that he had inspected the damage to his car upon arriving home the night of June 14, but that he could not explain why he did not call the police, even after hearing the next day from one of his aides that detectives were looking for him.
Instead, he called a secretary at the diocese to find someone to replace a windshield, said Anthony Novitsky, the lead prosecutor trying the case in Maricopa County Superior Court.
When the police came to Bishop O'Brien's home two days after the accident to question him, Mr. Novitsky said, he did not respond.
In his testimony, the bishop explained that he had simply wanted to be alone.
The prosecutor said in his opening arguments on Jan. 20 that there could be no question that what the bishop hit was a large man -- Mr. Reed was 6 feet tall and weighed about 250 pounds.
Mr. Reed was thrown onto the hood of the Buick and into the windshield with such force that body tissue and fibers from his shirt were embedded in the broken glass. There was blood on the roof.
Mr. Reed's body was run over and dragged almost 70 feet by a second car, which has not been found. A motorist who had been following the bishop's car took down his license plate number and gave it to the police.
Two weeks before the accident, Bishop O'Brien narrowly escaped prosecution on charges of concealing instances of child molesting by priests in the diocese. By publicly admitting his role in the cover-up, which included moving accused priests to other parishes where they continued working with children, the bishop was granted immunity from charges of obstruction of justice.
''I'm very saddened that he could be involved in the death of a human being,'' Msgr. John McMahon, a longtime friend of Bishop O'Brien, said to a cluster of reporters at the courthouse.
''I'm not sure that I wouldn't have stopped, in the same circumstances,'' Monsignor McMahon said. ''I'm afraid he did a poor job in his own defense.''
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