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Street racing murder case goes to jury

By Matt Bean
Court TV

Defendants George Waller Jr., left, and Lawrence Calhoun.
Defendants George Waller Jr., left, and Lawrence Calhoun.

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SAN DIEGO, California (Court TV) -- Two street racers had good reason to believe that a drag race on a deserted San Diego street was safe, even though it ended in a fiery, fatal accident, according to defense lawyers who delivered their closing arguments in the drivers' murder trial Thursday.

They "trusted the road, trusted the car, trusted each other and took off," said Nelson Brav, representing George Waller Jr., the driver of the car that fatally T-boned a Geo Storm, leaving two victims dead and one clinging to life.  It was "a stupid decision ... but their risk assessment was, 'We're not going to crash, we're not going to kill anybody.'"

Jurors deliberated about two hours Thursday before retiring for the evening.

Brav and fellow attorney, Vic Ericksen, who is representing the unscathed racer, Lawrence Calhoun, called the defendants in this San Diego County trial misguided, ill-informed and even "stupid" but returned often to a refrain: Neither man had a "reasonable expectation" that their high-octane hijinks would lead to death or bodily injury. 

Nudging the jury away from the most serious charge, second-degree murder, and toward vehicular manslaughter is the primary task of both lawyers.  Calhoun, 29, and Waller, 32, could face 30 years in prison if convicted of second-degree murder, but as little as probation with a manslaughter conviction.

In a rebuttal closing argument Wednesday, Deputy District Attorney Blaine Bowman wondered whether the closing arguments had ignored the obvious.  

"I hate to think that we've been ignoring common sense," said the prosecutor.  "Do we actually have to present evidence that two cars speeding down the street side by side is dangerous?" 

Bowman went on to do just that, listing various ways the men could have realized their sport could kill: The dangers were discussed on release forms, on fliers and over the public address system at the race tracks both men frequented; moments of silence were often held for those killed while racing; and relatives of those slain even attended events wearing pictures of their loved ones on T-shirts.

Faced with these facts on the stand, the two men adopted the strategy of "deny everything, admit nothing," said Bowman.

Calhoun and Waller are the first drag racers to be tried for murder in San Diego, where illegal street racing claimed the lives of 14 people last year. The prosecution does not need to demonstrate an intent to kill in order to win a conviction. Under the theory of implied malice, the jury can convict Waller and Calhoun if it finds that the men raced "with knowledge of the danger to and with conscious disregard for human life."

In his half-hour closing argument, Brav subtly suggested that his client, Waller, had avoided the highly public reports over deaths in the San Diego area caused by street racing. Waller did not have a computer, did not have a television and only watched sports when he did tune in, Brav said.

The defendants themselves testified earlier this week that they were totally unaware that illegal street racing posed a deadly risk to others and said they could not have anticipated the accident.

A self-deprecating Brav used a crude drawing (compared with the prosecution's polished PowerPoint presentations) to illustrate the "subjective standard" the jury has been asked to apply to the charges.

Pointing to a pair of "clumsy" heads he had drawn underneath the headlines "Murder" and "Vehicle manslaughter with gross negligence," Brav said there was an important difference between what the drag racers thought and what the jurors might think of their racing.

"You don't have murder unless this person, this head, knew — not you folks, not a reasonable person knew, not should have known — that before the race started there was a reasonable probability of death or bodily injury," he said.

After Waller slammed his 1968 Plymouth Barracuda into the Geo Storm, killing 19-year-olds Shanna Jump and Brian Hanson, Calhoun drove off in his 1984 El Camino. Hanson's brother, Michael, 17, was in the Geo's back seat and is currently in rehabilitation.

Calhoun's lawyer, Ericksen, pointed out testimony from a police officer who told the court he participated in more than 100 street races without incident.

"How does that translate to a high probability of death or bodily injury during a street race?" asked the lawyer. "It doesn't."

Ericksen also focused on statistics. "The 1.4 percent [that die in street racing accidents] is horrible because people have to suffer," he said. "I'm not telling you, you shouldn't feel for them. It just does not follow that that is the equivalent in value of the risk of a high probability of death or bodily injury."

Brav made a similar argument, but prosecutor Bowman argued that the percentage was hardly negligible.

"Let's say you're going to get on a plane and go to Hong Kong ... and the captain comes on the loudspeaker and says, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I just want to inform you that during the flight we have a 1.4 percent chance of crashing ... '" said Bowman.  "You wouldn't be able to hire flight attendants if that were the case."

Bowman also lamented the mention of the driver of the Geo Storm. 

"Maybe she didn't look or maybe she misjudged," Ericksen had said, pointing out that Jump had only recently received her license.  "That's not a defense, but it's something we think you should consider."

But Bowman returned, "Should we be talking about what Ms. Jump should have done? She should have driven 2 mph more?  Why don't we look it another way. Well, if Mr. Waller would have been driving 80 mph [instead of 87] maybe this never would have happened."

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