Closing Arguments Presented in ‘Mask’ Crash Trial

By Matt Pitt Dec 7, 2010
The crash site of Charles "Mask" Lewis: Dave Mandel |

“This is a very serious case. It’s also a very simple one. If you follow the law, then this case is already over.”

So began closing arguments in the trial of Jeffery David Kirby, the man facing 18 years in prison for the alleged DUI vehicular manslaughter of Charles “Mask” Lewis. Before courtroom observers -- including softly-weeping members of Lewis’ family -- Orange County Deputy District Attorney Jason Baez undertook a systematic presentation of the People’s case.

Faced with the duty of convincing 12 jurors to convict Kirby on a charge of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence while under the influence of alcohol, Mr. Baez began by enumerating the four legal elements of the charge: proof of operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, proof of a driving infraction, proof of gross negligence in the defendant’s conduct, and proof that that grossly negligent conduct contributed to Mr. Lewis’ death.

Mr. Baez took pains to point out that questions of Mr. Lewis’ actions that night were not under consideration in this trial. The manslaughter criminal code explicitly states that the “failure of another person [e.g. Lewis] to use reasonable care may have contributed to the death. But if the defendant’s act was a substantial factor causing the death, then the defendant is legally responsible.”

The issue of Mr. Kirby’s driving while under the influence of alcohol was readily dealt with: prosecution witnesses testified that his blood alcohol content registered at 0.13 two hours after the crash, and proposed that it might have been as high as 0.16 at the time of the crash. (The state’s legal limit is .08). The defense’s own witnesses -- while denying that Mr. Kirby had consumed the eight drinks the prosecution maintained -- conceded that Mr. Kirby had been drinking that evening, perhaps three or four drinks.

Racing a car on city streets after this much drinking, Mr. Baez argued, proves gross negligence. Considering that Mr. Kirby had a prior DUI conviction and had attended a Mothers Against Drunk Driving victim impact class, Mr. Kirby had even more reason to be sensitive to the dangers of drunk driving. Further, the act of racing his Porsche against Mr. Lewis’ Ferrari -- reaching speeds which skid marks showed to be in excess of 100 miles per hour -- fulfills the legal requirement of a “driving infraction.” In all, Mr. Baez painted a well-supported and damning picture of criminally reckless behavior behind the wheel.

Turning from the facts of the case, and the technical details of each count against Kirby, Mr. Baez took a few minutes to attempt to immunize the jury against the defense’s anticipated arguments. He asked the jurors to differentiate between possible doubt and the legal standard of reasonable doubt, and also to ignore speculation and hypotheticals, limiting their judgment solely to the evidence elicited in the prior week of testimony.

“You don’t need to be a legal expert to know racing your car at 100 miles per hour is reckless. You don’t need to be a criminologist to know driving after as much as eight drinks is grossly negligent. You just need to follow the law,” Mr. Baez implored the jury in closing.

Striding from his seat beside the defendant and standing directly before the jury box, defense counsel Mark Fredrick launched into his closing arguments.

“We as a people, our culture -- we don't like to blame the injured party,” Mr. Fredrick stated. “It's uncomfortable. And I apologize for that. But I have to do it! Because Charles Lewis is solely responsible for the actions that led to his death!”

“Lacy White, Mr. Lewis’ passenger that night, knows who’s to blame. That’s why she has filed a lawsuit blaming Charles Lewis for her injuries!”

Faced with sizeable amount of evidence against his client, the defense counsel chose a tripartite plan, beginning first to defuse and deflect the anger towards his client. Mr. Kirby’s previous DUI conviction was immaterial to this case. The death of Mr. Lewis was an “absolute tragedy” caused, Mr. Fredrick implied, by Lewis driving at “outrageously fast speeds.” It was natural for people to seek “justice, retribution, a pound of flesh.” Natural, he said, but unjust.

From there, Mr. Fredrick transitioned to putting the prosecution’s case on trial. He criticized the prosecution for only presenting evidence that supported their case, and for playing to the jury’s emotions by having Ms. White testify to her injuries. He underlined the prosecution’s inability to cite exactly what Mr. Kirby’s BAC was at the time of the crash, and mocked their contention that Mr. Kirby and Mr. Lewis were racing.

“A 32-year-old, 200-horsepower Porsche? Less horsepower than a Honda Accord? When Mr. Lewis was driving a new, red, 420-horsepower Ferrari? Nonsense!” Mr. Fredrick asserted.

The defense showed particular scorn for the vital testimony of the accident investigator, Detective Bush of the Newport Police Department.

“This,” Mr. Frederick called to the jury, picking up the investigator’s diagram of the accident, before dismissively tossing it aside. “This is just a guess.”

Impeaching Detective Bush as not credible because of his lack of college courses in physics, his 1.5 years of experience as an investigator, and his 80 hours of training in accident investigation, defense counsel entreated jurors to dismiss the prosecution’s argument that the two cars had been racing, and instead accept the defense’s claim that Mr. Kirby had been innocently overtaken by Lewis’s speeding Ferrari.

Lastly, Mr. Fredrick attempted to give moral support to any jurors who might be hesitant to convict his client.

“Do not give up on your beliefs!” he beseeched anyone on the jury considering acquittal.

The jury has a sobering task ahead of them. Much of the trial’s testimony was technical in nature. Justice and a man’s life lay in their hands.

The last words heard in the courtroom before Judge Richard Toohey’s final jury instructions were those of Mr. Baez.

“Don't compromise,” he told jurors. “Follow the law. Let justice prevail though the heavens fall!”
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