by Steve Berry
Friday, Apr. 20, 2001 at 4:21 AM
Courts: Defendant drove the car from which three colleagues fired weapons in an off-duty drunken escapade. Prosecutor calls the sentence too lenient.
A former Los Angeles police officer convicted of participating in an off-duty drunken shooting spree in Montebello in 1999 was fined $390 Wednesday and sentenced to three years' probation.
The ruling by Superior Court Judge Craig E. Veals left the prosecutor angry at what he considered a lenient sentence for an unrepentant former officer who engaged in dangerous and serious misconduct.
"He still believes he did nothing wrong," Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas R. Krag said in arguing that Steven Michael O'Neal be sent to jail for at least six months.
But O'Neal's attorney, Ricardo A. Torres II, said the offense was too minor to warrant jail time. By treating it as a felony, overzealous prosecutors had given in to political pressure to appear tough on misbehaving officers because of the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart corruption scandal, Torres said.
O'Neal, 31, is the last of four former LAPD officers charged with participating in the intoxicated drive through Montebello after a late-night party July 29, 1999. As O'Neal drove, his three colleagues fired pistols out the window. O'Neal did not shoot, but he let one of the officers get O'Neal's gun out of the glove compartment. No one was hurt.
A jury found O'Neal guilty in February of drunk driving and allowing the officer who used his gun to discharge it. Besides imposing probation and the fine, the judge ordered 200 hours of community service and forbade O'Neal to own a firearm.
Veals rejected Torres' motion to reduce the felony charge to a misdemeanor, which would have cleared the way for O'Neal to resume his career as a police officer. Nevertheless, Veal imposed a sentence that was more lenient than what the other officers received. In explaining his decision, Veals noted that O'Neal did not fire his gun.
The other former officers--Osbaldo Camacho and Cesar Roberto Huezo, both 27, and Christian Nicholas Abdelkerim, 28--were given the same probationary sentence but were fined $1,500 each.
Instead of demanding a trial, as O'Neal did, they pleaded no contest to negligently discharging their firearms, a felony that can bring up to three years' imprisonment.
In an interview Wednesday, Krag denied that charging O'Neal with a felony was politically motivated, calling the accusation preposterous. He said O'Neal's conduct was at least as serious as the other three officers' because he was the driver and could have stopped their behavior.
"This defendant should not get more lenient treatment than the other defendants, who came forward immediately and took their lumps," Krag said.
But Torres said O'Neal should not be treated more harshly just because he wanted a trial. Moreover, he said, the shooting happened too fast for O'Neal to have stopped it.
During the two-minute spree, the officers fired 16 shots, prompting a number of 911 calls to the Montebello Police Department. Police found beer and weapons in the vehicle. O'Neal's blood-alcohol level three hours after the incident was 0.11%; the legal driving limit is 0.08%.