A former philosophy major and law student was convicted today of assault with a deadly weapon and three other felonies for striking and seriously injuring a man with her car on a crowded street outside a bar near Lake Merritt in Oakland two years ago.
After the verdict against 28-year-old Meghan Zato was announced in his packed courtroom this morning, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Allan Hymer immediately remanded her into custody, citing the seriousness of her crimes and the fact that she faces up to 10 years in state prison.
Jurors deliberated for two days before reaching their verdict late Thursday afternoon but it wasn’t announced until today.
In addition to assault with a deadly weapon causing great bodily injury, Zato, who had been free on bail until today, was convicted of two counts of driving under the influence of alcohol and one count of leaving the scene of an accident.
The charges against her stemmed from an incident in which Zato plowed into 27-year-old James Roda of Oakland with her 1984 Mercedes-Benz while he was in the middle of 14th Street between Madison and Oak streets shortly before 1 a.m. on Oct. 5, 2013.
Zato’s lawyer, Megan Burns, admitted in her closing argument earlier this week that Zato struck Roda but said Zato was under duress because she faced an imminent threat from a group of men who had beaten her and robbed her of her cellphone in a confrontation in front of the Oakland Public Library.
The library is across the street from the Ruby Room bar, where Zato and Roda had both been drinking that night.
Prosecutor Adam Maldonado said Zato had been kicked out of the bar because she was drunk and had confronted patrons who were playing pool.
The confrontation occurred after Zato shouted at a group of people who were painting graffiti on the library’s walls.
Zato, who got a scholarship to study philosophy at the University of California at Los Angeles and then was a first semester student at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco but now works as a paralegal, testified last week that a mob blocked her car and she heard pounding on her trunk that sounded like a gunshot.
Burns said Zato “didn’t feel safe and was scared out of her mind” and felt like she had “no other alternative in that moment.”
Burns, who asked jurors to find Zato not guilty of all the charges against her, said, “What happened was terrible but it was an accident.”
Maldonado admitted that Zato had been the victim of a crime but said the situation had calmed down and she had spent five minutes smoking a cigarette in her car before she sped off, did a U-turn and hit Roda.
Maldonado said that when Zato was interviewed by police shortly after the collision she didn’t say anything about a crowd blocking her car, being badly hurt or facing immediate danger.
He alleged that when Zato testified, “She had to bolster her case for self-defense” by exaggerating what happened to her.
Maldonado said Zato had a blood-alcohol level of 0.16 percent, twice the legal limit, when she was tested two hours after the collision and an expert testified that her level probably was 0.24 at the time of the collision.
Roda, an Oakland man who was working as a server and a fry cook at an Alameda restaurant, had just come from the Ruby Room. He was hospitalized for six months with serious brain injuries that will challenge him for the rest of his life and is now legally blind. He also suffers from seizures and has memory problems.
Maldonado alleged that Zato “knew exactly what she was doing” when she quickly made a U-turn into the middle of the street “but she didn’t care” if she hit someone.
However, there wasn’t any evidence that she specifically targeted Roda, he said.
Roda, who was supported by a large group of family members and friends throughout the trial, said, “I’m very happy about the verdict.”
Roda said, “I forgive her (Zato) but I’m happy that justice was done.”
Referring to his recovery from his injuries, Roda said, “I’m trying to keep it going and have an active life.”
He said his memory is improving but he still has no memory of the accident.
Roda’s mother, Theresa Roda, said the verdict against Zato is “a relief” but Roda will still have to deal with his injuries for the rest of his life.
Roda said her son “has never complained” about his injuries or felt sorry for himself but instead is focused on making as much of his life as possible.
“He really is a miracle,” Roda said.
She said James Roda wanted to be a cook and is now doing prep work at the Drake’s Dealership brewpub in downtown Oakland.
Zato is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 8.
Jeff Shuttleworth, Bay City News