A 39-year-old drunken driver who fatally struck a California Highway Patrol officer writing a ticket on the shoulder of Interstate 15 in Lake Elsinore made “extremely poor decisions,” but they don’t translate to murder, an attorney argued Thursday.
“This case was horrific,” defense attorney Kerry Armstrong told a Murrieta jury during his closing statement in the trial of Michael Joseph Callahan of Winchester. “There is no doubt that my client committed an act of driving into a motorcycle and unfortunately killing Sgt. Steve Licon. But did he have a state of mind exhibiting malice aforethought? The prosecution hasn’t proved it.”
Armstrong spent most of his closing, which was pushed into Thursday morning after the prosecution spent Wednesday afternoon making its final arguments at the Southwest Justice Center, raising doubts about whether the government had provided convincing evidence that Callahan’s actions equated to second-degree murder.
“The day of the crash was a big aberration,” the attorney said. “Mr. Callahan was not processing things rationally.”
Armstrong recounted how his client drank to excess at Big Al’s Sports Bar in Ontario during an impromptu after-work party on April 6, 2019, and became so inebriated, “he was not thinking like a normal person.”
The defendant, a Costco supervisor, had invited nearly a dozen co- workers to join him for drinks at the establishment, even though, by his own admission, he had slept less than five hours prior to his night shift and was exhausted. Armstrong argued that Callahan’s usual reserve and inhibitions vanished as he consumed five 22-ounce beers and three shots of tequila in roughly 4 1/2 hours.
“He made some extremely poor decisions, but that doesn’t equate to murder,” the attorney said.
Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Carlos Managas told jurors in his closing argument that Callahan’s friends “warned him, implored him, begged him not to get behind the wheel of his car.”
“He made a decision to hold onto his keys. He drove into Steve Licon, killing him,” Managas said.
The 53-year-old lawman, a Perris resident, was nearing retirement after almost 30 years of service.
As he left the bar about 3 p.m. that day, several coworkers urged Callahan, who had a misdemeanor DUI conviction from Orange County in 2004, to let someone else drive him home, according to Managas.
“His friends warned him again and again and again not to go,” he told jurors. “But Michael Callahan rejected their offers.”
According to the prosecution, Callahan nearly sideswiped two cars and almost ran into a concrete divider on the Riverside (91) Freeway before turning southbound on Interstate 15 to return home. One motorist’s dashcam captured him speeding “recklessly along grass and gravel and dirt,” using shoulder spaces barely large enough for his sedan to get around slower traffic in lanes, Managas said.
According to the CHP, Licon was working extra duty that afternoon because of heavy traffic associated with the “superbloom” of wildflowers in the valleys around Lake Elsinore, which drew large crowds and clogged roadways that March and April. The veteran motorcycle officer had stopped the speeding driver of a Chrysler sedan about a mile north of Nichols Road on southbound I- 15, Managas said.
After Licon obtained the driver’s information, he returned to his motorcycle to begin writing the citation.
“He doesn’t know that death is coming,” the prosecutor said. “Death’s name is Michael Callahan.”
Licon had just finished writing the date and time in his ticket book when Callahan came barreling down the right shoulder at 70 to 80 mph in his Toyota Corolla, plowing into the lawman, his bike and the idling Chrysler, according to Managas.
The CHP sergeant was pronounced dead less than an hour later at Inland Valley Medical Center in Wildomar. The occupants of the Chrysler escaped with minor injuries, as did Callahan.
“This didn’t need to happen, but for the defendant’s selfishness and stubbornness,” Managas said.
Under California law, a convicted DUI offender who is aware of the risks of drinking and driving and then causes someone’s death because of it can be charged with murder.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Freer sent jurors behind closed doors to begin deliberations after closing statements concluded.
Callahan was being held on $1 million bail at the Byrd Detention Center in Murrieta, facing 15 years to life in state prison if convicted.