Attorneys made pre-trial motions this week in the case against John Dungan, a Santa Barbara man accused of killing three people in a vehicle crash on Highway 154.
Dungan, 30, was charged with murder after his vehicle collided with another vehicle and killed Solvang mother Rebecca Bley, 34, and her two children, Desmond Bley Gleason, 4 months, and Lucienne Bley Gleason, 2.
California Highway Patrol investigators believe Dungan deliberately drove into oncoming traffic with the intention of colliding with another car. He was seriously injured in the Oct. 25, 2019, crash and airlifted to a local hospital.
Dungan has entered a not guilty plea to the charges and is being held in Santa Barbara County Jail custody without bail as he awaits trial.
The Superior Court’s presiding judge indefinitely suspended jury trials because of the winter surge in COVID-19 cases, which could affect the trial timing for this case.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Adams said March is the best estimate for jury trials restarting in Santa Barbara. He scheduled a trial confirmation hearing for mid-March.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, attorneys for the prosecution and defense argued their cases on pre-trial motions, including what witness testimony and evidence could be admitted during the jury trial.
The case alleges that Dungan was suicidal and homicidal at the time of the collision, according to Deputy District Attorney Megan Chanda, who is prosecuting the case with Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner.
Some of the evidence that the attorneys mentioned in their arguments included Dungan’s alleged suicide note and text messages to people on the day of the crash.
Defense attorney Jeremy Lessem, who is representing Dungan, argued that some evidence would provoke an emotional response from jurors without adding insight to the facts of the case. He doesn’t want the court to allow Coroner’s Bureau photos of Bley and the two children.
Chanda and Wagner argued that the photos corroborate testimony from the Coroner’s Bureau investigators and prove the violent force of the crash.
Coroner’s investigators determined that all three people died from the impact of the crash, not the fire that engulfed the vehicle, according to court testimony.
The force of the collision between the two vehicles sheared off the driver’s compartment of Bley’s vehicle, and she was thrown with such force that she came out of her shoes, Chanda said in court Wednesday.
The car caught fire after the crash. The bodies of the two children, who were in car seats in the vehicle, were burned in the fire and had to be identified by DNA samples, prosecutors said.
Photos of the bodies of the woman and two children would be challenging, Chanda said, “but it is a murder trial.”
Lessem argued that it’s not necessary to show photos of burned bodies to show the severity of the crash.
He said the cause of death is not disputed and the insight that the photos would give the jury is “nonexistent” and would “inflame passions.”
Lessem also argued against allowing testimony from Max Gleason, who is Bley’s husband and father to their two children.
Prosecutors argued that Gleason could testify about Bley’s knowledge of the roadway, the vehicle and her use of car seats. Wagner said they wouldn’t call Gleason to testify for the sole purpose of engendering sympathy from jurors.
“It’s a gap area that jurors would want to know,” he said.
Lessem said the fault in the collision is not disputed, saying it could just be a way to get emotional witness testimony in front of the jury.
Adams has not yet issued a ruling in any of the pre-trial motions.
Dungan appeared in person in court for both days of the hearing. He wore Santa Barbara County Jail clothing, leg chains, and a belly chain with his wrists linked to it.
Dungan’s parents appeared in the courtroom Wednesday morning to watch the proceedings, but Adams asked them to leave since they could be called as witnesses during the trial.
— Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.