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Leyritz describes going from helplessness to elation during DUI trial

From Beth Karas, In Session
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Leyritz opens up about trial
  • Jim Leyritz describes his experience after tried for DUI manslaughter
  • The former baseball star says he was "fighting for [his] three boys"
  • He is acquitted of one charge, convicted of a lesser charge
  • Leyritz could have faced 15 years in prison for killing a woman while driving drunk

Fort Lauderdale, Florida (CNN) -- Jim Leyritz is seven years removed from pro baseball, 11 years from his last World Series home run. But he's itching to get back on the field.

Three years ago this December, after having a few drinks with friends on his 44th birthday, the car he was driving hit that of 30-year-old Freida Veitch. She died as a result, and Leyritz soon found himself staring down the prospect of up to 15 years in prison after being charged with vehicular manslaughter while driving drunk.

On Saturday, a South Florida jury decided his fate: not guilty of vehicular manslaughter, though guilty of a lesser drunken-driving charge. A bailiff unlocked his handcuffs, and an emotional Leyritz hugged his mother and girlfriend. He hugged three of the jurors as well, showing them pictures of the three boys of whom he had primary custody.

And soon thereafter, he heard from his boys' baseball program -- which had barred the former New York Yankee from being on the bench during practices and games alongside his sons.

"They ... said, 'OK, springtime, we want you back out here coaching,' " he said Sunday from a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, youth baseball complex he said he often goes to several times a week with his kids. "It's one of the things I miss the most."

After his retirement, Leyritz traded off his athletic celebrity, giving motivational speeches tied to his postseason heroics as well as doing radio and TV work. On the morning of December 28, 2007, after the crash, he said he was wearing a large World Series ring when he told law enforcement officers, "I'm Jim Leyritz, the baseball player."

Before he was charged criminally, Leyritz settled a civil lawsuit filed by Veitch's family, saying he did so out "of the goodness of my heart" to help out the victim's two children. Still, he said he feels his high profile worked against him -- and contributed to the vehicular manslaughter charge -- because "people wanted to get their 15 minutes [of fame]."

Leyritz: 'There's no winners in this case'

Well before the trial started this month, Leyritz said he had to breathe into a breathalyzer regularly -- to assure that he hadn't been drinking -- at home for three months, temporarily lost his license, then had to breathe into a car breathalyzer every time he got behind the wheel. He went through "DUI school" as well as nine weeks of counseling, he said.

Because of his legal troubles, Leyritz said he lost his jobs in the media as well as speaking engagements. It could have been worse, said Leyritz, had Major League Baseball not stepped up and helped him pay his bills.

All the while, the former player said he threw himself into the criminal case, regularly returning to the accident scene, poring over testimony, talking with his lawyer. Still, Leyritz said he felt helpless as he awaited the verdict of the jury that had, the day earlier, told the judge it was deadlocked.

"I used to be a catcher, controlling the entire game, Before I put my hand down, the game didn't start," he said. "This was totally different. This was totally something over which you have no control."

Prosecutors claimed that Leyritz was legally drunk when he sped through a red light and hit Veitch; the defense countered that Veitch didn't have her lights on and that the light was yellow when Leyritz drove through. A defense expert, Dr. Stefan Rose, testified that Leyritz told him he had seven drinks shortly before the crash, a number that the defendant said wasn't right but "a number we had to use."

Jury foreman Brian Haul told CNN's sister network TruTV that, while all six people quickly agreed Leyritz wasn't guilty of the greater charge, they felt compelled to hold him responsible on some grounds.

"Are we going to go in front the public and say it's OK to have four or five drinks within an hour or so period of time and then hit the road? I think that was the deciding factor," he said.

Yet one juror, Sharon Wessinger, said she had also wanted to acquit Leyritz of the lesser drunken driving charge. She told Leyritz, who came over to show the jurors' pictures of his three boys after the verdict, that she changed her mind to avoid a hung jury that may have led to another trial.

"The thought of it going into another trial later and you possibly being convicted of manslaughter, when we weren't doing that, I couldn't let that happen," Wessinger told Leyritz.

Jurors said they didn't believe the defense's argument that the crash occurred 10 minutes earlier than investigators had said. But they also said that they didn't believe Leyritz ran the red light, and said that Veitch's drinking -- her blood-alcohol level was 0.18, more than twice the legal limit -- and the fact she wasn't wearing a seat belt were critical factors in her death.

The victim's husband, Jordan Veitch, left the courtroom with his parents, saying only that Leyritz "didn't get what he deserved."

Leyritz's legal travails aren't over; prosecution and defense attorneys will meet December 1, to settle on a sentencing date on the drunken driving charge. But the most jail time he could face is six months, far short of what could have awaited him. And for now, Leyritz is free on bond and required to breath into a device every time he gets behind the wheel.

Speaking Sunday, the day after the verdict, Leyritz said he has some bitterness: toward the prosecutor, over the fact he had not been able to see his brother before he died of ALS, and because his children had to go through the whole ordeal. Since it's an anniversary of the crash, he said every birthday will remind him of Veitch "and I'll say my prayers and condolences."

Still, Leyritz said that the entire thing will be worth it, if his and Veitch's story might convince someone not to drive after a few drinks. And he said that it's also strengthened his faith, and made him all the more grateful to be free and with family.

"The difference is, you come home and your little 9-year-old boy comes up to you and says, 'Daddy, it's over,'" he said of his relief after the verdict. "I was fighting for these three boys, who needed their father."

In Session's Grace Wong contributed to this report.