Screenwriter begins serving one-year sentence with work release
By Daryl Kelley
Oscar-winning screenwriter and Ojai Valley resident Roger Avary was booked into Ventura County Jail on Monday to begin serving a one-year sentence for felony manslaughter, and was immediately placed in a work-furlough program.
The work-furlough program allows low-risk inmates to go to their jobs and return to custody after their workdays. Inmates in the program pay the county a fee for their custody.
“Someone like Roger, who can contribute to society, ought to be doing that at the same time as he serves his sentence,” said attorney Mark Werksman, who represents the writer-director-producer. “It allows him to pay his debt to society as he serves his sentence, instead of being warehoused.”
Avary, 44, was sentenced last month to one year in jail and five years probation for gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, resulting from a late-night car crash in which an Italian newlywed was killed and Avary’s wife was injured.
When sentencing Avary last month, Judge Edward Brodie directed that a work-furlough screening be completed to see if Avary qualified. So, after Avary reported to the county jail for booking at 7 a.m. Monday, he was directed to the work-furlough detention facility in Camarillo, officials confirmed.
An attorney for the family of crash-victim Andrea Zini could not be reached for comment. But family members, who had flown from Italy for the sentencing, left the courtroom crying and dejected, refusing Avary’s invitation to speak with them.
Prosecutors had asked for a prison sentence of at least six years.
But Chief Deputy District Attorney Michael Frawley declined this week to say much about the sentence, or Avary’s acceptance into the work-furlough program.
“I don’t think we want to be commenting on that,” he said. “The judge ruled, so we don’t have any further comment.
“But this sentence is not unique,” Frawley added. “Other people who have killed someone with an alcohol-related crime have received a year in jail, rather than prison. Every case turns on a different set of facts. We argued for prison because of the especially egregious facts in this case.”
Zini, a 34-year-old mechanical engineer, was killed when an impaired Avary lost control of his speeding Mercedes sedan on a curve and smashed into a telephone pole on Highway 150 near Ojai Lumber.
Avary had just met the Italian couple that evening in January 2008, and he invited them to his home after sharing dinner and drinks with common friends. Zini’s wife was not in the car.
Avary admitted guilt to five felonies last month, and faced a maximum of 12 years and eight months in prison, or a minimum sentence of six years and eight months, if Brodie decided to send him to state prison. Prosecutors asked for the six-year minimum.
During sentencing, attorneys announced that Avary had settled for $4.1 million a civil lawsuit filed by the Zini family, after hiring his own independent lawyer to press his auto insurance company for a swift settlement.
That factor, along with Avary’s clean criminal and driving record before the Jan. 13, 2008 crash, were key considerations in his sentence, Judge Brodie said. Avary’s stellar life story, obvious remorse and the need for him to support his wife and two children, were also factors in his decision, the judge said.
Avary, an Academy Award winner for “Pulp Fiction” in 1994, apologized for his admitted crime, and he and his wife, Gretchen, tearfully requested forgiveness from the Zini family.
Brodie said he had considered imprisoning Avary, who he concluded had made “fatal errors,” by drinking too much and driving far too fast.
“What happened was fairly predictable on a country road like that,” the judge said. “A life was lost for no apparent good reason … (but) not because Mr. Avary intended to take a life.”
Brodie chose a more lenient sentence partly because “of the life you have led,” he told Avary.
While Deputy District Attorney Michael Lief had asked for a prison sentence partly because of what he saw as a lack of remorse, the prosecutor said the judge’s sentence of one year in jail, five years probation and attendance in an alcohol education program, was “perhaps appropriate,” given the judge’s explanation.
“This is a case deserving of a prison sentence,” Lief said then. “But I can’t say the court was wrong.”
During the September hearing, Avary told of “the gravity of despair that I feel … I’ve been consumed by grief.”
And he said he would make amends in any way he could to the Zini family, and to his own.
After apologizing to the Zini family, Gretchen Avary asked the judge to give her husband a chance to continue to make a living and to provide restitution.
Werksman noted that Avary is working on two films and that the jobs of hundreds of workers would be affected if he went to jail. Werksman asked that Avary be allowed to leave Ventura County to work on his films while in the work-furlough program.
The judge said that decision would be made at a later time.
Werksman said Monday that he has not yet filed a formal request with the court asking that Avary be allowed to leave the county to work on his films.
Avary pleaded guilty last month to felony charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and causing injury while driving under the influence of alcohol. He also admitted to three felony violations of the state vehicle code.
Prosecutors said Avary had a blood-alcohol level of .11, while a level of .08 or greater constitutes drunken driving in California. Prosecutors also maintained that skid marks showed Avary was driving at 100 mph and that his sedan crashed into the pole at a speed of 25 to 35 mph.
Defense lawyers acknowledge that Avary was driving faster than the 45 mph speed limit, but far slower than 100 mph. They also said that a blown tire caused the accident, and a dangerous road contributed to it.