A man choked and punched a woman seated in front of him on a Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco after she reclined her seat, a prosecutor told a federal jury Tuesday, but his attorney said he never assaulted the passenger.
Lawrence Wells, 54, of Richmond, California, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the federal charge of assault on an airplane resulting in serious bodily injury.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Lichtman told jurors that Wells “attacked” the woman — identified in court papers by the initials M.D. — last Oct. 18 after Southwest Airlines flight 2010 departed three hours late from Los Angeles International Airport.
The woman was seated in the row ahead of Wells, and when she leaned back in her seat, “this upset the defendant,” Lichtman said in his opening statement.
When she again reclined her chair back after take-off, Wells “put his hands on her throat, his hands around her neck” and punched her “full force,” the prosecutor alleged.
“She couldn’t breathe and thought she was going to die,” Lichtman told the jury.
But while defense attorney Alan Eisner did not deny there was a heated encounter between the two, he denied that his client ever punched, choked or assaulted the woman.
“She said she was scared, but not really hurt,” Eisner said. “She did not suffer from this incident.”
Lichtman, however, maintains the woman suffered “concussion symptoms,” including nausea, loss of appetite and ringing in the ears for about a month afterward.
“She was seriously injured,” Lichtman said.
The prosecutor alleged that when a flight attendant asked Wells what had happened, the defendant responded, “I’m not apologizing.”
Eisner, though, told the downtown Los Angeles jury panel that the alleged victim — who, he said, is over 6 feet tall — at first ignored Wells’ complaints about her seat.
The woman told Wells, “I need more room” because her knees were “jammed up,” Eisner said.
“She said she didn’t feel like being sweet and kind about it,” the defense attorney said. About 10 minutes after the flight took off, the captain of the aircraft declared an emergency and returned to LAX, where Wells was met by law enforcement officers, including FBI agents.
The indictment alleges that Wells choked and punched the victim in the head with a closed fist, an act that resulted in serious bodily injury.
Eisner told the jury that evidence will show the woman suffered “no physical trauma” from the encounter and first sought medical attention five days afterward.
The trial before U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner is expected to last all week.
—City News Service