A 39-year-old drunken driver who struck a California Highway Patrol officer writing a ticket on the shoulder of Interstate 15 in Lake Elsinore was convicted Friday of second-degree murder.
Following a week of deliberations, a Murrieta jury returned the unanimous verdict against Michael Joseph Callahan of Winchester, also finding him guilty of a sentence-enhancing allegation of causing great bodily injury in the death of 53-year-old Steve Lawrence Licon of Perris.
“The verdict has factual basis. It is supported by the evidence,” Riverside County Superior Court Judge Timothy Freer said.
The judge acknowledged that jurors were locked in “intense” discussions prior to reaching a decision, and he expressed his sympathies, saying all the factors in the case made it a difficult one to decide.
“Words escape me, but I think the word that applies is `frustrating,”’ Freer said.
He set a sentencing hearing for Oct. 1 at the Southwest Justice Center and ordered Callahan held without bail at the nearby Byrd Detention Center.
The defendant, whose bail had been $1 million, is expected to be sentenced to15 years to life in state prison.
Deputy District Attorney Carlos Managas told jurors in his closing argument last week that Callahan’s friends “warned him, implored him, begged him not to get behind the wheel of his car” on April 6, 2019.
“His friends warned him again and again and again not to go,” the prosecutor said. “But Michael Callahan rejected their offers.”
The defendant had spent almost five hours doing shots of tequila and downing 22-ounce beers, altogether consuming at least eight drinks, in what was an impromptu after-work party at Big Al’s sports bar in Ontario, according to trial testimony.
Callahan, a Costco supervisor, had invited nearly a dozen co-workers to join him for drinks at the establishment, even though, by his own admission, he had slept less than five hours prior to his night shift and was exhausted.
According to the prosecution, Callahan nearly sideswiped two cars and almost ran into a concrete divider on the Riverside (91) Freeway before turning southbound on I-15 to return home. One motorist’s dashcam captured the defendant speeding “recklessly along grass and gravel and dirt,” using shoulder spaces barely large enough for his sedan to get around slower traffic in lanes, Managas said.
According to the CHP, Licon was working extra duty that afternoon because of heavy traffic associated with a “super bloom” of wildflowers in the valleys around Lake Elsinore, which drew large crowds and clogged roadways that March and April.
The veteran motorcycle officer, nearing retirement after almost 30 years of service, had stopped the driver of a Chrysler sedan about a mile north of Nichols Road on southbound I-15 for speeding, Managas said.
After Licon obtained the driver’s information, he returned to his motorcycle to begin writing the citation.
“He doesn’t know that death is coming,” the prosecutor said. “Death’s name is Michael Callahan.”
Licon had just finished writing the date and time in his ticket book when Callahan came barreling down the right shoulder at 70 to 80 mph in his Toyota Corolla, plowing into the lawman, his bike and the idling Chrysler, according to Managas.
The CHP sergeant was pronounced dead less than an hour later at Inland Valley Medical Center in Wildomar. The occupants of the Chrysler escaped with minor injuries, as did Callahan.
Defense attorney Kerry Armstrong admitted the “case was horrific,” and he did not try to excuse his client’s excesses. However, he rejected the prosecution’s contention that there had been malice of forethought, one of the elements necessary to prove a murder.
Armstrong argued Callahan’s inhibitions vanished as he imbibed large quantities of alcohol.
“The day of the crash was a big aberration,” the attorney said. “Mr. Callahan was not processing things rationally. He made some extremely poor decisions, but that doesn’t equate to murder.”
The defendant’s blood-alcohol level was estimated to be around .20 — well over twice the legal limit to operate a motor vehicle — on the day of the crash.
He had a misdemeanor DUI conviction from Orange County in 2004. By his own admission, his marriage had almost collapsed because of his drinking.
Under California law, a convicted DUI offender who is aware of the risks of drinking and driving and then causes someone’s death because of it can be charged with murder.
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