VAN NUYS, Calif. - The preliminary hearing of actor Brian Surewood and co-defendant Armando Ayon concluded today with Judge Leslie A. Dunn ruling that the men will be tried on almost all of the charges brought against them as a result of a pedestrian's death last October.
As explained more fully in our previous story, Surewood and Ayon were involved in some sort of traffic interplay on Sherman Way in the West San Fernando Valley - exactly what sort of interplay remains in dispute - when Ayon hit several parked vehicles, causing the death of a 5-year-old boy, the loss of his mother's left leg and severe head injuries to the woman's 10-month-old daughter.
Today's first witness was Detective David Millan, who testified about his investigation of the incident, including the recorded statement he took from Surewood and Ayon as to the events leading up to the injuries. Surewood told Millan that he'd heard that he was being sought in relation to the accident only after seeing it on TV, although he had stopped a couple of blocks west of the collision site and phoned 911 to get assistance for the victims.
In the statement, Surewood denied that he had been a participant in the accident, although he did admit that a black Nissan Maxima had been riding his bumper intermittently for at least the block between Balboa Ave. and Amestoy St. on westbound Sherman Way until the exasperated Surewood had "tapped" the brakes of his red Chevy Camaro to get the Maxima, driven by Ayon, to back off. It is alleged that that application of the brake caused Ayon to swerve into the line of parked cars to his right, injuring the woman and her children.
All of the attorneys involved in the case - prosecutor James Falco, Ayon's attorney Howard R. Levine and Surewood's counsel Peter Korn - attempted to get details of the incident from Det. Millan, but the detective apparently had little memory of his investigation, opting to rely on his written report and the transcripts of Ayon's and Surewood's statements. There was also a report available from LAPD accident reconstructionist Jennifer Snell, but it was not introduced into evidence because Snell was on maternity leave and could not be in court to authenticate the document.
Of great import at the hearing was the location and interpretation of tire marks found at the scene, and after the prosecution rested its case, Korn called his own accident reconstruction expert, Robert Ockey, to the stand. However, Judge Dunn limited Ockey's testimony to whether he could tell, from examining the tire marks, if Surewood had applied his brakes just before Ayon collided with the parked cars.
Ockey, a 20-year veteran of LAPD and an accredited accident reconstructionist, testified that he could find no indication from the tire marks that Surewood had stopped in the curb lane of westbound Sherman Way at any time before Ayon swerved into the parked cars, and provided a diagram which showed all of the tire marks at the scene, some of which he interpreted for the court. Ockey said that if Surewood had even slowed down at the site of the accident, his car would have been hit by Ayon's after it had bounced off the parked cars and as it crossed the three lanes of Sherman Way, headed for the center divider, where it came to rest until police arrived on the scene.
After the completion of testimony, both Levine and Korn argued that their clients should not be charged with murder for having killed the child because, under California case law, to find someone guilty of murder in such a situation would require a finding of "implied malice" - that the defendants had realized that their conduct could lead to severe injury or death, but that they proceeded with their actions anyway. "Implied malice" requires a greater burden of proof than either of the lesser standards of "reckless indifference" or "gross negligence," neither of which would sustain a murder conviction.
Beyond that, both defense attorneys argued essentially that it was "the other guy's fault," based on the police report, the witnesses' statements and the reconstructionist's testimony. Korn also argued that Surewood should not be charged with "personal infliction of great bodily injury" since neither he nor his car had ever come in contact with any of the victims - and indeed, Judge Dunn dismissed that charge.
However, although the judge agreed that neither defendant intended to injure anyone, a combination of factors, including the fact that both defendants stated to police that they had wanted to get away from the other defendant's car, rose to a finding of implied malice.
"This is more than just reckless driving," Judge Dunn intoned, noting that by most estimates, there were more than 50 cars on the road in the vicinity of the accident just before it took place.
"Motor vehicles are not toys," she charged. "You don't play games on the road... He [Surewood] was intentionally creating a dangerous situation" by tapping his brakes with Ayon's vehicle so close behind Surewood's.
"Clearly, they were engaged in acts that were dangerous to human life," she said.
Therefore, Judge Dunn ruled, both defendants would have to face trial on charges of murder, vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving.
A date for that trial has not yet been set.