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    Judge frees driver who killed mom pushing baby

    Going against the jury's decision, a judge rules that Richard Delrio, 19, committed no crime when he hit Michele Calta, 26, two years ago.

    By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 13, 2002
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    TAMPA -- Driving a souped-up sports car nicknamed Ricochet, Richard Delrio hit and killed a young mother as she pushed her newborn girl across the street in November 2000.

    Two weeks ago, jurors decided it was vehicular homicide.

    But in a rare move Monday, a judge tossed out the jury's verdict, calling the death an accident and setting 19-year-old Delrio free.

    Prosecutors argued that Delrio ran a stop sign in his Mitsubishi Eclipse and cut a corner too sharply when he struck 26-year-old Michele Calta, whose last act before death was to push the baby in the stroller to safety.

    Defense attorney Joe Episcopo told the judge that the death was the result of Delrio's "inattentiveness," rather than criminal recklessness and criticized the jury's finding of guilt as "an emotional verdict."

    In tossing out the verdict, Hillsborough Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett agreed that there was no criminal act.

    After the ruling, Michael Calta, the victim's brother-in-law, said his family was "shocked and devastated."

    "How can you not be angry at the judge?" Calta said. "The only thing we had after the loss of Michele, after two years of agony, was that one door was finally closed" with the jury's verdict. "And now it's wide open again."

    Judge Padgett explained his reasoning in court Monday:

    "She was in the street, it was broad daylight, and this guy mowed her down," he said. While it was difficult to understand how such a thing could happen, Padgett said, "that's an accident. There's nothing particularly egregious about that except for the fact that somebody got killed. There's nothing particularly egregious about the act itself."

    Experts estimated that Delrio had been traveling 17 to 26 mph in a 25-mph zone when his car struck Calta on Branch Mooring Drive near her home in Countryway. Since it could not be established that he was speeding, Episcopo said, the act would not amount to criminal recklessness, even if Delrio had run the stop sign.

    "It's ordinary negligence," Episcopo said. "It's a civil matter."

    However, prosecutor Art McNeil argued that Delrio had done more than just run a stop sign: He had turned on the wrong side of the road to take the curve sharply, as was his habit at that intersection. McNeil asked the judge if he had considered trial testimony about Delrio's bad driving habits.

    The judge appeared to give it little weight, replying that in his years on the bench, "I've never heard the phrase "habit testimony.' "

    Afterward, the prosecutor called the judge's ruling "extremely unusual," especially because the judge had twice rejected defense motions for acquittal during the trial. The state vowed to appeal.

    Delrio faced up to 15 years in prison at his sentencing, which had been scheduled for September. But the sentencing was canceled and his $10,000 bail revoked.

    "He's a free man," McNeil said.

    Particularly galling to the victim's family, Michael Calta said, was Delrio's driving history. Before he hit Calta, Delrio had points on his driver's license for running a red light, making an improper lane change and driving with his headlights off. One of those caused an accident.

    "He was driving on a restricted license when he killed Michele," Calta said. In fact, Delrio's license allowed him to drive only to and from school, work and church.

    Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober said he could not recall a case in his 25-year career in Hillsborough in which a judge had completely thrown out a jury's finding of guilt.

    Because Padgett's ruling came after the jury's verdict, the state can appeal, said state attorney spokeswoman Pam Bondi. If the judge had dismissed the case during the trial, the state would not have been able to do so.

    Delrio and his mother declined to comment, referring questions to their attorney.

    "Accidents like this happen all the time," Episcopo said. "They're not really always criminal." Expressing sympathy for Calta's family, Episcopo said it was not an occasion for celebration, but added, "We're just happy that justice was done."

    -- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Christopher Goffard can be reached at 813-226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com.

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