A jury reached a guilty verdict Wednesday in the trial of a deaf driver who plowed through a group of people in the streets of downtown San Diego during a 2014 Comic-Con “Zombie Walk” event, seriously injuring one woman.
The fate of Matthew Pocci, on trial for felony reckless driving, was expected to be decided around 11 a.m. Five minutes after 11 a.m., Pocci walked into the courtroom accompanied by his wife and infant.
Ultimately, the jury decided Pocci is guilty of reckless driving causing serious injury with one allegation of causing great bodily injury. The jurors were escorted out of the courtroom immediately after the verdict was read.
Pocci's sentencing is slated for Dec. 11. He faces a maximum of three years in prison with the possibility of probation, per the judge's discretion in this case.
The case hinged on whether Pocci drove through the group of Zombie Walk participants out of anger and frustration, or whether he was frightened and intended no malice.
On Monday, Pocci took the stand for the final time, recounting his side of the story. He testified that he didn’t believe a sign language interpreter helping with his police report on the day of the accident understood what he wanted to say when filing the documents.
"I'm fluent; I use my body, I use my signs, I use my facial expressions for everything," Pocci said through an ALS interpreter. "And how he was trying to interpret what I was saying, I'm not really sure that he got everything correct."
Pocci said when he looked back over the police report, he was surprised.
"When I saw the police report, I said, 'I never said that,'" Pocci testified.
San Diego Police Officer Jeff Gross, the officer Pocci was referring to, testified that at the time of the accident he was ALS certified after he passed a test about a decade before the crash, but did not have required classes to keep his certification updated.
At the scene, he spoke to Pocci, his girlfriend April and her sister briefly. They were moved to downtown headquarters for a longer interview because Pocci feared the crowd would hurt them.
Gross did not record the interview or take notes, but later used his memory to write a report.
Gross said he thought Pocci signed the word "anger" but asked for clarification and spelled out "frustration" by signing. Pocci was "frustrated" because he couldn't communicate with the crowd the way he wanted to.
Over the course of Pocci’s trial, witnesses from both sides have testified, including Cynthia Campbell, the woman badly injured in the crash. Campbell was photographing the Zombie Walk event when she was hit by Pocci’s vehicle and was caught underneath the car.
She suffered serious injuries in the collision.
During Campbell’s testimony, Pocci wiped tears from his eyes as the victim recounted the terrifying ordeal.
Prosecutors argued Pocci was angry and impatient when he ran into Campbell and others at the event, but the defense argued Pocci was frightened by the group dressed in zombie costumes and he panicked when he accelerated through the crowd.
Following Wednesday's guilty verdict, San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Anthony Campagna said he was pleased with the jury's decision and agreed with the jury's stance that the fact that Pocci is deaf did not play a factor in the crash.
“He got frustrated and did not want to communicate with the people telling him to stop,” the prosecutor said. “We prosecute people based on if they committed a crime. We look at the facts and do not give someone a free pass because they have a disability.”
Campagna said Campbell – the main victim of this crash – will likely never fully recover from the horrific crash.
“Her arm, from her shoulder to wrist, was open skin and, because of the injury, had to be reattached and she underwent several surgeries to repair the damage to her arm,” Campagna explained. “She indicated she will not make a 100 percent, full recovery – emotionally or physically.”
Jury foreman Steven Hunter told NBC 7 he feels the jury did its job in this trial, and that justice was served. Still, he said it’s an unfortunate situation and, in the end, there are no real winners.
“It’s not a win-win situation – I just discussed that with the prosecuting attorney. No one ever comes away happy after something like this has happened,” said Hunter. “It’s just tough because of the outcome, there is a person that is pretty badly injured still after so many surgeries and this man is scarred in a way that everyone will suffer.”
After reviewing a lot of videotape evidence in this case, Hunter said the jury concluded that Pocci’s deafness was not a factor.
Pocci’s defense attorney, Ashby Sorensen, said Pocci was “disappointed” with the verdict and feels he is being punished for protecting his family.
“I’m disappointed. Matthew is extremely disappointed and hurt. He felt like he was a victim that day and he feels like he’s a victim again for simply trying to protect his family,” said Sorensen.
Sorensen said Pocci has no criminal record, and hopes his client gets probation rather than prison time at his upcoming sentencing. He said Pocci has felt “terrible” throughout the trial and “displayed a great deal of empathy” for Campbell and others hurt by the crash.
Sorensen said the case has given him a new, in-depth perspective on what it’s like to be deaf – a topic that was extremely difficult to explain to the jury in this trial, according to the attorney.
“I’ve gotten to learn a lot about what deaf people go through in their daily lives and what they can perceive, and just what goes on in the world to them,” said Sorensen. “There’s a lot more than just not being able to hear – there’s a whole different psychology to what a deaf person goes through in his life. It’s very difficult, and it’s hard to explain to a jury. Over the last six months, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it’s like.”
“That was the challenge here and we just weren’t able to do it,” Sorensen added.