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Arizona bishop convicted in hit-run death

By The Washington Post and The Associated Press

JACK KURTZ / AP
Bishop Thomas O'Brien, left, sits next to one of his attorneys, Tom Henze, after the verdict was read in O'Brien's trial yesterday in Phoenix.
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PHOENIX Bishop Thomas O'Brien, the former head of Arizona's largest Roman Catholic diocese, was convicted yesterday of leaving the scene of an accident in which the car he was driving struck and killed a pedestrian.

O'Brien, 68, is believed to be the first Catholic bishop in U.S. history to be convicted of a felony. He stepped down as head of the Phoenix diocese last summer after he was charged in the accident, which came two months after authorities agreed not to prosecute him for covering up allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

The bishop sat stone-faced in a Maricopa County courtroom yesterday as the verdict was read. The jury had deliberated less than seven hours over two days after a monthlong trial.

O'Brien faces up to 45 months in jail. Sentencing was set for March 12.

As spectators and jurors left the courtroom after the verdict, the bishop sat in his chair, unmoving and silent, for another half-hour. He later left with his attorney and did not comment.

Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley said after the verdict that he was "sad that we had to take a bishop to trial" but that the result demonstrates "the important principle that no matter who you are, everyone is treated equally under the law."

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

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

The bishop testified that he heard a loud crash but never saw anyone in the road. He said he thought he had hit a dog or had been struck by a rock. The defense contended that dim lighting, headlight glare and Reed's dark clothing made him hard to see.

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

Prosecutors argued that O'Brien knew or should have known he had hit a person. They pointed out that O'Brien did not call police even after an official in the diocese told him the car may have been involved in a deadly accident.
 
They also noted he tried to get the windshield repaired, even knowing police were looking for the car. Detectives tracked O'Brien down at his home two days after the accident.

Jurors said they focused most on the legal concept that a reasonable driver should have known he had hit another person.

"We didn't doubt the bishop's testimony," said juror Joan Sundeen. "That's not what our verdict was based on."

"This was not guesswork," juror Erik Mikkelsen added. "It was a windshield with significant damage. This did not happen with a little bird flying into the windshield. We all have compassion for the bishop, but we felt that what he did was not the way a reasonable driver should react."

Just two months before the accident last June, O'Brien had negotiated an agreement in which he admitted he had failed to report cases of sexual molestation by priests in his diocese and promised sweeping reforms of diocesan hiring and assignment practices. In return, prosecutors agreed not to prosecute him on charges of failing to report sexual crimes by priests under his management.

Bishop Thomas Olmsted, O'Brien's successor, said it is up to Pope John Paul II to decide if O'Brien's duties as a priest should be restricted.

But Bill Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he didn't expect restrictions against O'Brien.

"He still will retain the title of bishop," Ryan said. "He still will be a bishop and a priest."

 


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