The Sun-Sentinel has completely ignored an important local story with a wrinkle of national importance occurring in a high-profile Ft. Lauderdale trial. The incompetence of the local prosecutor’s office in the Jim Leyritz trial has gone unnoticed by the (admittedly undermanned) Sun-Sentinel news room. The Sun-Sen has covered the trial to some extent, but has ignored a story of more general relevance than if Jim Leyritz is ultimately convicted: whether our prosecutor’s office is competent to try such a case.
Background: Former New York Yankee World Series hero Jim Leyritz is on trial for DUI manslaughter for a terrible accident that occurred downtown just under three years ago at the corner of Himmarshee and SW 7th Avenue. A local young mother of two named Fredia Veitch was ejected from her car and died during the collision. Jim Leyritz was drunk, and as has been well-reported, Ms. Veitch was too. A vital pre-trial motion had the judge ruling that evidence of her intoxication was inadmissable during Leyritz’s trial. Basically, the ruling was that Ms. Veitch’s condition is irrelevant to whether Leyritz was intoxicated while committing a traffic violation, and whether that violation resulted in Ms. Veitch’s death. That means that evidence, testimony, whatever, of her condition would not be before the jury.
Now for the trial, which after jury selection last week, began on Monday. The Sun-Sen reported on the beginning of the trial. But on Tuesday there was a bomb: a series of apparently 15-20 questions that Leyritz’s lawyer, famed local defense attorney David Bogenschutz, asked of the prosecution’s witness regarding the extent to which Ms. Veitch had been drinking that night. Tom Francis, formerly and regrettably not still, a fantastic local reporter for the Broward New Times (see our tongue in cheek take-down of the New Times and Tom Francis, here), reported for the New York Post that Bogenschutz asked a series of un-objected-to questions of a prosecution witness that had been with Ms. Veitch on the evening in question regarding her level of intoxication. And the witness’ testimony was that he had seen her drink four or five shots, and there was another 45 minutes during which she had been at the bar while he was absent during which she may have consumed more drinks. Word to the prosecution: THIS IS THE EVIDENCE YOU FOUGHT TO HAVE EXCLUDED. Maybe this wasn’t the toxicology report they specifically discussed in the pretrial motion, but this is the same. The judge’s ruling had been that her condition was not important. This testimony is evidence of her condition. One objection from the prosection and this entire line of questioning, the whole concept of the victim being intoxicated, would never be heard by the jury. But that did not happen. And then the prosectution even asked the witness about Ms. Veitch’s condition at the Himmarshee St. bar Fat Cats, at which point the judge stopped the trial and sent the jury out of the courtroom. As Mr. Francis reports the judge angrily asking the prosecutor:
“Do you consider her condition relevant? He [Bogenschutz] asked 15 to 20 questions about what drinks she had, unobjected, and now you’re asking about her condition. My ruling is that her condition was not relevant as to whether the defendant ran the red light.”
But that’s not all. Later, according to Tom Francis, another prosecution witness, Leyritz’s passenger at the time of the crash, testified that the light was definitely yellow when they entered the intersection, not that he had seen the light turn from green to yellow to red as the prosecutor promised in her opening statement. I do not know the background, I do not know what the witness told the prosecutor’s investigators and whether he should have been treated as a hostile witness, but it is a failure of lawyering when one of your key witnesses testifies the exact opposite of what you want, expect, and promised the jury the witness will say.
I am not writing this column to comment on whether Ms. Veitch’s intoxication should be allowed in the trial, nor whether her intoxication is important as to who is responsible for the accident. That is for the judge to decide, and he did decide prior to the beginning of the trial. Nor am I passing a judgment on Jim Leyritz’s guilt. My point is that the prosection in this high-profile case, which surely was not run by first year attorneys trying a standard DUI case, has been incompetent. The vital issue of Ms. Veitch’s intoxication, which the judge specifically excluded from the trial because of its tendancy to sway the jury, very well could determine the outcome of this trial. And, in fact, I predict it will determine the outcome. For the last three years I thought Leyritz had no chance after learning of his .14-.18 BAC. But the state’s attorney’s office performed incompetently at an extremely important moment of this trial, and the Sun-Sentinel has yet to mention it. This issue could be the whole trial and it was not mentioned in our local paper-of-record! I don’t know what else to say.
But I will try: today the Sun-Sen finally posted another article about the trial. The headline is “Ex-Yankee Sobs During Trial”. It describes potentially important evidence of a video showing the accident may have ocurred ten minutes earlier than police records report and that Jim Leyritz cried (thanks for the headline and the details). For the defense the tape is apparently evidence that Leyritz’s drinks at the bar might not have hit his blood at the time of the crash, or something. Brilliant lawyering by Bogenschutz, standard. But regardless of what the judge’s jury instructions might ultimately command the jury to ignore, it’s hardly the case-changer that allowing the victim’s condition to be described to the jury may turn out to be.
– Fat Hand