A Santa Barbara man has pleaded no contest to charges of gross vehicular manslaughter in a car-surfing case that left one young woman dead and another seriously injured last year, and will spend 14 years in prison.
Trial was set to begin this month for Lanie Tyrone Richardson, 29, who was facing second-degree murder charges after prosecutors alleged he was under the influence and behind the wheel of an SUV in the early morning hours of June 6, 2012, while Allison Meadows, 26, and her friend, Lindsay Keebler, 25, were riding on the hood.
With the vehicle traveling in excess of 70 mph, according to estimates by the California Highway Patrol, the two women were ejected onto East Valley Road in Montecito.
Meadows died of major head injuries, and Keebler was seriously injured in the incident.
Richardson pleaded not guilty last November to a host of charges, including second-degree murder and manslaughter while intoxicated with gross negligence.
On Thursday, District Attorney Joyce Dudley announced that Richardson had pleaded no contest to gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, and also admitted to personally inflicting great bodily injury to a second victim.
In addition, he admitted to having a prior felony conviction and driving on a suspended license as a result of a prior DUI.
The charge of second-degree murder was dropped in the case, Dudley said, "because both the victims and the investigating law enforcement officers felt under this tragic circumstances this agreement was in the best interest of justice."
Last year, the case underwent a three-day preliminary hearing which called multiple law enforcement officers to the stand who were involved with the investigation.
Arriving at the hospital the morning of Meadows' death, Santa Barbara police Officer Gary Siegel reported that Richardson said he'd picked up the two women as he and his passenger were driving on East Valley Road, returning from a friend’s party in Summerland.
Richardson said he didn't know the women, Siegel said, and had only driven them to the hospital.
When the officer asked if Richardson had been drinking, he responded that he’d “had a little,” but no alcohol testing was done on Richardson, a fact that posed a challenge for prosecutors.
More details continued to emerge throughout the course of the hearing, however.
CHP Sgt. Andrew Chapman reported that Connor Clowers, a fourth person in the vehicle that night, told him that Richardson, as well as the women and Clowers himself, were under the influence of cocaine before the incident.
Keebler, Richardson and Clowers initially told investigators that they had never met, and that the women had been victims of a hit-and-run collision that morning when the men stopped to take them to the hospital.
Chapman spoke about interviewing Clowers several times, and testified that Clowers admitted to lying to law enforcement about not knowing Meadows and Keebler when they talked to him that morning.
Chapman said Clowers had recounted leaving Whiskey Richards, a State Street bar, with Richardson, Keebler and Meadows the night before, and that Richardson had driven as the women car surfed downtown on Arrellaga Street on the way to a party.
The party was hosted by Whiskey Richards employee, and Clowers also told law enforcement that all four of them did lines of cocaine after they arrived at the gathering and on the way to Montecito.
Richardson also had a prescription for several anti-depressants, including Zoloft, and another officer confirmed that the mixture of alcohol, cocaine and prescription drugs would seriously impair anyone trying to drive.
Richardson was charged with what is known as a “Watson murder," a term that comes from a 1981 California Supreme Court case — People v. Watson — that established that, in some circumstances, a person who kills someone while driving under the influence can be charged with murder rather than manslaughter.
Defendants convicted of DUI must formally acknowledge that it is extremely dangerous to drive while under the influence, and that if they kill someone while driving under the influence, they can be charged with murder.
Noozhawk found Superior Court records revealing that Richardson had two recent felony DUI convictions, in 2010 and 2011, and the records also show that he signed such a statement acknowledging the risks and consequences for driving while intoxicated.
Deputy District Attorney Von Nguyen said Richardson appeared in court Thursday to enter the plea, and that family of the victims were also in court.
Nguyen said her office had filed the Watson count as well as the alternative count of vehicular manslaughter, but "with input from the victims and law enforcement looking at the case" the decision was made to drop the murder charge.
"It's a gamble," she said. "You never know how a jury will see it."
Had Richardson been convicted of murder, he would have faced a prison sentence of 15 years to life.
"The fact that he was willing to step up and plead the manslaughter charge ... I feel that 14 years is a just sentence," she said.
She called that amount of time "significant" and also said that had Richardson been sentenced for second-degree murder, the amount of time between when he'd be eligible for parole and credits for timed served already compared with time he will serve for the manslaughter charge "weren't that far off."
He will be sentenced on Jan. 9.