Defense may appeal conviction

BY MICHAEL MARTZ
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER Oct 21, 2006

Former Richmond police officer Michael J. Couture buried his face in his hands. He had just been convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the death of Santanna Olavarria. Couture's family and friends wept behind him.
Less than an hour later yesterday afternoon, it was Olavarria's family that was stunned and outraged. The jury recommended a sentence, and the judge imposed it -- a $2,500 fine.

Voluntary manslaughter carries a possible sentence of 10 years in prison.

"It's a joke," said Annette Olavarria, whose 21-year-old son was killed May 29, 2004, during a confrontation that began when police stopped him for running a stop sign in East Richmond.

Before sentencing, Annette Olavarria wept as she testified about the family's anguish over her son's death.

"When you killed my son, you killed a part of every single person in my household," she told Couture, who never removed his hands from his face during her testimony. "Every day, I wake up and Santanna is the first thing I think of, and he's the last thing I think of when I go to sleep."

A jury of seven women and five men convicted Couture, 33, after deliberating for 6 hours over two days in Richmond Circuit Court. They had heard the former police officer testify that he had fired the fatal shot at the same time that Olavarria had raised both his hands and said, "Don't."

Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael N. Herring said Couture's decision to fire "a blind shot" at an unarmed man was irresponsible and evidence of man- slaughter. He also said the former officer had put himself in a compromising situation by his actions after his rookie partner spotted the handle of a gun beneath Olavarria's seat.

However, Herring accepted the jury's sentence of a fine. "I am thankful for the conviction," he said. "It was a tough case to prove."

"I respect the jury's decision in sentencing as much as I do with guilt or innocence," Herring added. "I'm relieved that we're done."

Defense attorneys were glad that Couture will not serve time in prison or jail. "I'd rather have not guilty, but if I did have guilty, I'd rather not have incarceration," said David P. Baugh, lead defense attorney.

Couture and his family had no comment on the verdict but appeared relieved after hearing the sentence. Couture's former partner, Richmond police officer Edward A. Aeschlimann, 28, also declined to comment.

Aeschlimann, like Couture, originally had been charged with second-degree murder for Olavarria's death. Aeschlimann fired four shots into the car, hitting Olavarria three times, including a wound to the head that would have been fatal if he had not already been dead from Couture's bullet.

A jury deadlock resulted in a mistrial last November in Couture's murder trial. Herring, who took office in January, decided to seek a lesser charge against Couture and dismiss the charge against Aeschlimann altogether. Baugh faulted former Commonwealth's Attorney David M. Hicks for pressing the murder charges instead of asking for an independent special prosecutor to examine the case.

"Hicks' going ahead with the case was extremely irresponsible," Baugh told reporters. "Herring had to make the best of a bad decision."

Despite the verdict and sentence, the legal battle isn't over.

Couture and his lawyers have not yet discussed a possible appeal. Despite the light sentence, his attorneys remain concerned about the manslaughter conviction.

"Bottom line -- our client is a convicted felon," said Sara Davis Harman, an attorney assisting Baugh.

Baugh said he may contest an instruction to the jury by Judge Walter W. "Pete" Stout III over the definition of self-defense. The jury had asked yesterday morning for advice on whether a police officer could claim self-defense if he were responsible for his own predicament. The judge deferred to his previous instructions.

"My understanding of the law is that self-defense still applies," Baugh said.

Members of the jury were not available to comment, but much of the evidence introduced over the trial's first two days focused on the appropriateness of Couture's actions after Aeschlimann spotted the gun and urged him to get Olavarria out of the car. Couture suddenly grabbed Olavarria in an arm hold. Olavarria didn't resist, but his seat belt was strapped across him.

When Couture reached across him to undo the belt, he said Olavarria first grabbed his shirt and then tried to push him away. The car began to move -- it remains unclear why or how fast -- and the officer ran alongside while struggling with the driver. Couture said he fell partly into the car and then pulled himself the rest of the way inside.

As he sprawled across Olavarria with his face toward the passenger floorboard, Couture testified that he pulled his gun, began squeezing the trigger, rolled on his side and fired. He saw both of Olavarria's hands rise and heard him say, "Don't." He hadn't seen a gun or been told directly that a gun was in the car.

Even if Couture doesn't appeal, the fight will continue in civil court. In June, Olavarria's family filed a $50 million lawsuit against Couture, Aeschlimann and the City of Richmond. The suit accuses the officers of "willful and wanton negligence" in the shooting, and contends the city breached its duty to adequately train or equip its officers to handle such situations.

Baugh tried to use the lawsuit against the Olavarrias in his speech to the jury before sentencing. "His agony is not over," he said of Couture.

Annette Olavarria told Baugh, "If you could give me back my son, I would relinquish the lawsuit."


Contact staff writer Michael Martz at mmartz@timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6964. Times-Dispatch staff writer Jim Nolan contributed to this report.