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MH resident found guilty

The Gilroy Dispatch: MH resident found guilty

Friday, October 21, 2011

By Michael Moore

Morgan Hill resident Sandra Arlia left the courthouse in tears, surrounded by a crowd of family members and friends after the jury found her guilty of vehicular manslaughter Friday.

The verdict was announced about 5 p.m., following four days of testimony from witnesses and arguments from attorneys.

The jury of seven women and five men deliberated for slightly more than one hour before reaching the unanimous verdict that she drove negligently when the accident that killed Rory Tomasello happened. One juror said it was "not super difficult" to reach the verdict because the evidence was "fairly clear."

"The failure of one driver to adhere to a crosswalk while other drivers had, was a big indicator" that Arlia was negligent, as the state argued during the trial, said the juror, a Morgan Hill resident who only gave his name as Chris.

Arlia, 67 of Morgan Hill, was on trial for the misdemeanor charge in relation to the Oct. 23, 2009 traffic accident in which the Cadillac SRX she was driving collided with Tomasello, of Morgan Hill. The accident occurred while Tomasello was riding his bicycle through a crosswalk just east of the Centennial Recreation Center.

Tomasello died Nov. 2, 2009, as a result of a head injury suffered in the accident.

One of the eye witnesses, Kenneth Miller who was driving a Toyota Prius at the time of the accident, saw Tomasello stopped in the wide concrete median when Miller approached the crosswalk going west. He stopped to allow the cyclist to cross the first westbound lane, and then saw him collide with Arlia's vehicle in the next lane.

The fact that Miller's vehicle was already stopped when Arlia approached the intersection is one clear piece of evidence that Arlia should have stopped at the crosswalk, even if she could not see Tomasello the same time as other motorists, Santa Clara County deputy District Attorney Paola Estanislao explained in her closing arguments.

Tomasello's family was emotionally moved by the verdict, as his aunt immediately began sobbing as soon as the court clerk read the jury's decision.

"I'm glad there's justice for Rory," the victim's aunt Sharon Ortegon said Friday afternoon outside South County Courthouse, where the trial took place. "The family has always felt if (Arlia) took responsibility in the beginning, this could have been avoided. She dragged our family through a week of hell (during the trial)."

Tomasello's father, Tom Tomasello, said the family feels that justice was served for their son's death, but it's bittersweet.

"We're sorry for Ms. Arlia," he said.

Arlia declined to comment on the case as she left the courthouse surrounded by about 20 friends and relatives. Her attorney, Jaime Leanos, was perplexed and "disappointed" by the verdict because he had argued that all the evidence showed Arlia was not negligent. He argued she was driving carefully and attentively at the time of the accident, which he said she could not have avoided.

"I think there was a big sympathy factor for Rory Tomasello's family, who was there (in the courtroom)," Leanos said. "Their sympathy for the family overwhelmed their obligation as jurors."

Carol Snow, a friend of Arlia's who has known the defendant for more than 20 years, was also crying as she exited the courtroom. She said her friend should not have been prosecuted for the accident that many in the courtroom felt could not have been avoided.

"We've all come very close to the same situation," Snow said. "It was just an accident. It wasn't her fault."

Throughout the trial, witnesses testified that Tomasello proceeded quickly and carelessly through the crosswalk as soon as Miller's Prius stopped to allow him to pass. This gave Arlia less time to react than if he had dismounted from his bicycle and walked across, according to accident reconstruction expert Rajeev Kelkar, who testified for the defendant.

The defense also said Tomasello should not have ridden his bicycle across the street, and instead should have dismounted and walked across. The crosswalk where the accident took place connects two sections of a paved pedestrian and bike path that parallels Llagas Creek.

"The law says you have to dismount," Leanos said in court. "It is not foreseeable (to a motorist) for someone to jump on a bike and bolt through the intersection."

Plus, the fact that Tomasello was not wearing a helmet contributed to his death, Leanos said.

Other evidence, Leanos noted, showed that Arlia was traveling no more than 25 mph - slower than the posted speed limit - at the time of the impact, and based on a reconstruction of the accident she reacted faster than the average driver when she saw Tomasello crossing.

The district attorney's office presented more than 35 pieces of evidence during the trial, mostly consisting of photographs of the accident scene and diagrams prepared by the state's expert, San Jose police officer Kevin Cassidy.

The state argued that Arlia had abundant warnings that she should have stopped at the crosswalk, even though she could not see Tomasello. Arlia should have seen Miller's vehicle stopped in the lane next to her, and the road is marked with numerous signs and pavement markings alerting motorists of the coming crosswalk, Estanislao explained.

Just because she was traveling slowly and reacted quickly did not clear Arlia of her duty to come to a complete stop under those circumstances, the prosecutor said.

"A reasonable person would not have ignored all those clues that there's a danger and a hazard ahead," Estanislao said.

She added that Tomasello's "contributory negligence" of cycling without a helmet and illegally crossing the street on a bicycle should not excuse Arlia's negligent role in the accident.

Estanislao stressed repeatedly that Arlia made "a tragic error" and she did not intend to hurt anyone. Witnesses from the scene testified earlier this week that Arlia was emotionally distraught after the accident, and cooperative with investigators. She was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Leanos countered in his closing arguments that all of the posted warnings on the road for motorists indicated that pedestrians could be crossing ahead - but nothing advised that cyclists might be crossing. That makes a big difference because cyclists travel faster than pedestrians, and the law differentiates between the two modes, he explained.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Joanne McCracken set Arlia's sentencing hearing is set for Nov. 9 at South County Courthouse in Morgan Hill. Arlia faces up to one year in county jail for the conviction of vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence. She could also be ordered to pay restitution to Tomasello's family.