A man was convicted Wednesday of a federal misdemeanor count of “simple assault” stemming from a heated encounter with a woman seated in front of him on a Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
Lawrence Wells, 54, of Richmond, California, faces up to a year in prison when sentenced on June 27, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Wells had faced a federal felony charge of assault on an airplane resulting in serious bodily injury, with the lesser included misdemeanor “simple assault” count, prosecutors said.
The jury rejected the felony and settled on the lesser count at the conclusion of the second day of trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Lichtman told jurors on Tuesday 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, seated in the row ahead of Wells, “upset the defendant” when she reclined her seat, 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.
Dfense attorney Alan Eisner did not refute that there was a heated encounter between the two, but 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 said the woman suffered “concussion symptoms,” including nausea, loss of appetite and ringing in the ears for about a month afterward.
Eisner told the downtown Los Angeles jury panel that the woman at first ignored Wells’ complaints about her seat.
She told Wells “I need more room” because her knees were “jammed up,” according to Eisner, who said the woman is over 6 feet tall.
“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.
Eisner apparently persuaded the jury that the woman suffered no great physical injury from the incident.
–City News Service