Tuesday, February 17, 2004

PHOENIX (AP) — Bishop Thomas O’Brien was convicted of hit-and-run yesterday for leaving the scene after killing a jaywalking pedestrian with his car, a crash that ended his career as head of the Roman Catholic diocese.

Bishop O’Brien, 68, is believed to be the first Roman Catholic bishop in U.S. history to be convicted of a felony. He could be been sentenced to anywhere from probation to 33/4 years in prison. No sentencing date has been set.

Jurors deliberated about 4 hours Friday and an additional two hours yesterday before reaching their verdict.

Bishop O’Brien, who appeared in court each day wearing a black shirt, Roman collar and a cross around his neck, showed no emotion after the verdict was read. He and his attorney left the courtroom with no comment.

“It’s a sad day,” said Monsignor Dale Fushek, the diocese’s co-vicar general and a friend of Bishop O’Brien’s. “It’s the kind of situation where nobody wins. We respect the work the jury did, and now we just pray everyone heals.”

Some members of the victim’s family cried after the verdict, and members of the bishop’s family declined to comment.

Bishop O’Brien led the Phoenix diocese’s nearly 480,000 Catholics for 21 years, but stepped down in June after he was charged in the crash.

“I’m saddened by the tragedy that this is and I feel … a great deal of empathy with Bishop O’Brien,” said Bishop Thomas Olmsted, Bishop O’Brien’s successor.

The resignation came after two weeks of turmoil following an announcement by prosecutors that they had reached an immunity deal with Bishop O’Brien that would spare him indictment on obstruction charges for protecting priests accused of child molestation.

The chief facts surrounding the accident that killed pedestrian Jim Reed, 43, were not in dispute.

Mr. Reed was drunk and jaywalking on the night of June 14 when Bishop O’Brien hit him with his car on his way home from celebrating Mass, leaving a giant spider-web crack in the windshield and Mr. Reed lying in the street. Bishop O’Brien then drove the two miles back to his house and parked the Buick in his garage.

The bishop, who testified for most of two days in the trial, said he initially thought he hit a dog or was struck by a rock. He said he heard a loud crash but never saw anyone in the road, and the defense contended that dim lighting, headlight glare and the victim’s dark clothes made him hard to see.

Had he seen the pedestrian, Bishop O’Brien testified, “I would have stopped because that’s the human thing to do. I couldn’t imagine not stopping.”

But prosecutors argued that Bishop O’Brien knew or should have known he hit a person. They pointed to the fact that Bishop O’Brien did not call police even after an official in the diocese told him the car might have been involved in a deadly accident.

They also noted that he tried to get the windshield repaired, even knowing police were looking for the car. Detectives tracked down Bishop O’Brien at his home two days after the accident.

“He goes ostrich. His head goes in the sand. Blinders are on. He just wants it to go away,” prosecutor Anthony Novitsky said during closing arguments.

Authorities have said Bishop O’Brien would not have been charged with a crime if he had stopped and helped or, at the very least, waited for police to arrive.

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