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Man appeals sentence for road deaths

Brittany Retherford and The Associated Press

RENO – If the five members of a Utah family had been wearing seat belts when their van was struck by a retired Grass Valley resident, his attorney alleges, the outcome might have been different.

Currently serving an 80-year prison sentence for causing the death of four children and an adult in a van, Stephen Scharosch is appealing his conviction and sentence on the grounds of poor legal representation.

His current attorney, Mary Lou Wilson, says other trial lawyers didn’t adequately represent Scharosch in previous legal proceedings.



During a hearing Thursday in Washoe County, Senior Justice Deborah Agosti ordered the defense and prosecutor to meet with Washoe District Judge Robert Perry next week to discuss whether Scharosch can make this argument, asking the defendant to refine his arguments for an appeal of his conviction and sentence.

Agosti was filling in for Perry this week.




Scharosch, a former firefighter who had retired in Grass Valley, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 80 years in prison for the May 2002 accident on Interstate 80.

Authorities said Scharosch was drunk and had smoked marijuana when he drove the wrong way on the divided interstate, slamming head-on into a van east of Reno. At the time, Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Pat McGill told the Associated Press, “This is the worst crash I’ve seen in 21 years.”

Five people died, four of them children. Two others were seriously injured.

“Common sense will tell you there’s a good chance that those folks would not have been killed or substantially harmed had they been wearing seat belts,” she said.

A forensic pathologist’s report said two of the dead flew 280 feet from the accident and two were ejected 150 feet, Wilson said. The adult victim was run over twice. The only two people wearing seat belts were not injured, she said.

But Deputy District Attorney Joe Plater said Wilson’s argument has no legal standing.

“It’s undisputed that this man was intoxicated and was driving on the wrong side of the highway,” he told the judge.

Wilson is seeking court approval for funds to explore her claims and wants an order to force the Nevada Highway Patrol to cooperate with her request for an accident reconstructionist.

During the hearing, Agosti denied Plater’s motion to dismiss Scharosch’s claim that his lawyers at his sentencing failed to adequately represent him. Instead, she gave Wilson 90 days to file an amended petition focusing on the claims she feels carry the most weight.

Among those were defense arguments that Scharosch’s lawyers failed to have a psychiatrist evaluate him to determine whether he was competent at the time of the accident and subsequent legal proceedings.

Wilson said the exam was necessary because Scharosch had undergone brain surgery for an embolism back in the mid-90s.

The surgery might have caused permanent brain damage, she said, and resulted in uncontrollable blackouts.

They also failed to call in experts to determine whether Scharosch was in an alcoholic blackout at the time of the crash.

“It does not negate guilt,” Wilson said, but argued it might have affected his sentence.

“He spent 30 years as a firefighter,” Wilson said. “This was a man who was an upstanding citizen.”

The family killed in the crash was traveling home to Utah after attending a wedding anniversary celebration in California. The father, Fernando Meza-Arriaga, was not hurt, but his wife, Maria Avelar-Mojarro, was critically injured.

The couple’s three children and a niece, ranging in age from 7 years to 9 months, were killed, as was Meza-Arriaga’s sister. Another niece was seriously injured.

Staff writer Brittany Retherford of The Union contributed to this story.


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