ST. LOUIS — The trial of St. Louis Rams defensive end Leonard Little on allegations of drunken driving and speeding in Ladue, Mo., is set to begin today with jury selection that may take as long as the presentation of evidence and arguments.
To the sports fan, Little is the stalwart who has anchored the left side of the Rams’ defensive line and made the Pro Bowl.
Beyond the sports pages, Little was the obscure rookie linebacker who in October 1998 drove his Lincoln Navigator through a red light downtown and collided with a car driven by Susan Gutweiler, 47, of Oakville, who was killed.
In June 1999, Little admitted he had been drunk that night and pleaded guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, 1,000 hours of community service and four years of probation. That prompted a public debate over whether the penalty was enough—and whether Little got favored treatment.
It is the Gutweiler death that makes this week’s prosecution of Little in St. Louis County Circuit Court a major case.
A Missouri law passed in 2001 says a person accused of drunken driving can be charged as a persistent offender if there is a prior manslaughter conviction. So instead of facing a municipal ordinance violation or a state misdemeanor charge, which are common in DUI cases, Little is charged with a felony that carries a maximum sentence of four years in prison.
While the charge is a felony only because of the prior conviction, Prosecutor mark Bishop cannot mention the Gutweiler case in court. Judge Emmett M. O’Brien barred it in an order sought by defense attorneys Scott Rosenblum and John Rogers.
Legal experts say Bishop has one way around the order. He could use the conviction to attack Little’s credibility, if Little testifies.
Little, 30, of St. Charles, Mo., pleaded not guilty of the charges at his arraignment.
Questioning of prospective jurors is expected to follow two main themes — how much each knows about the prior case and how much each knows about Little’s football prowess — and whether either would stand in the way of a fair verdict. In high profile cases, potential jurors often are questioned individually at the judge’s bench, outside the earshot of the others. The process in this case is expected to be lengthy.
The key prosecution witness in the trial will be Ladue police Officer Gregory Stork.
At 3:44 a.m. on April 24, 2004, Stork’s patrol car was on the shoulder of westbound Highway 40, just past the McKnight Road overpass, when he clocked Little’s westbound 2003 Mercedes at 78 mph in a 55 zone, police reported.
In court records, Stork alleged the defendant smelled of alcohol, failed sobriety tests, admitted he had been drinking and refused to take a Breathalyzer test.
Stork is a 13-year veteran of the department.
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