A 24-year-old man had been warned twice about the dangers of driving under the influence before he was “high on heroin” behind the wheel of a pickup that slammed into a bicyclist in Newport Beach a year ago, killing the biker, a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday.
As a convicted drunken driver, Neil Storm Stephany was warned he could face a murder charge if he were involved in a deadly collision while intoxicated, Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker said in her opening statement of Stephany’s trial. The defendant fled the crash scene because he was on probation and knew he was in trouble, Walker added.
“On Oct. 19, 2014, the defendant drove while high on heroin, knowing what could happen and he did it anyway,” Walker said. “That’s why we’re here.”
Stephany’s attorney, however, told jurors his client’s “state of mind” at the time of the collision was so clouded he did not know he hit anyone, and the defendant should not be convicted of second-degree murder.
The collision happened about 5 p.m. that afternoon on East Coast Highway. Shaun Eagleson, 30, of Fountain Valley, was riding his bike northbound and was killed when he was struck by a Toyota Tacoma, Walker said.
Before the collision, calls were already streaming in to police about the defendant’s “erratic driving” on the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor (73) toll road, according to the prosecutor.
“They saw him in his truck driving all over the place, stopping at green lights,” Walker said.
Stephany struck a guard rail on Pacific Coast Highway, Walker said.
After running over Eagleson, “the defendant stopped briefly and fled the scene because he didn’t want to get into trouble,” Walker said.
Police caught up with Stephany near Fashion Island, where he failed field sobriety tests and had “fresh track marks from heroin use,” Walker said.
Blood tests showed the defendant had heroin and Lorazepam in his system, Walker said. He also had another drug on him that is used to help with heroin withdrawal, according to Walker.
Stephany had intended to check into a rehabilitation facility the following day, the prosecutor said.
The defendant had been warned twice that if he drove under the influence of alcohol or drugs, he would face a murder charge, Walker said. Stephany would typically have faced a manslaughter charge, but has a prior conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol, prompting the second-degree murder charge. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years to life in prison.
Stephany pleaded guilty to misdemeanor driving under the influence on Oct. 4, 2011, and was sentenced to a two-day jail term and placed on three years of informal probation.
On Aug. 6, 2013, Stephany pleaded guilty to assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury and unlawful possession of a controlled substance, both felonies, and was immediately sentenced to 180 days in jail and placed on three years of formal probation. He was also ordered to participate in a drug or alcohol program and was again warned he could face murder charge if killed anyone in a traffic accident.
Stephany was still on probation when he struck Eagleson, Walker said.
Stephany’s attorney, Brian Gurwitz, told jurors there were no significant “factual disputes” in the trial.
“But the legal disputes are major,” Gurwitz said.
“He killed a good man, who was doing nothing wrong,” Gurwitz said of his client. “To call this a tragedy is an understatement.”
Stephany was “just hours away from checking into rehab,” Gurwitz said.
When he struck the victim, Stephany “had no clue he hit a person. He thought he hit a parked car,” Gurwitz said.
Stephany was nodding off at the wheel and during his interview with police, Gurwitz said.
In order to prove second-degree murder, the prosecutor has to show there was a “high probability of death” from the defendant’s actions, Gurwitz said.
“At the end of the case he may be guilty of a lot of things… But he is not guilty of murder,” Gurwitz said.
— Wire reports