Jury: Reckless driver guilty in girlfriend's death

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Members of a Minnesota jury found a local man guilty of homicide after crashing his car on a Minneapolis highway last September, killing his girlfriend while the 21-year-old fled from the scene.

According to the Hennepin County Attorney's office, the jury found Michael Laurence Campbell guilty of two counts of criminal vehicular homicide for the death of his 20-year-old girlfriend Ria Patel, as well as one count of leaving the scene of a fatal collision.

“Mr. Campbell was probably drunk, he smashed into a pole going 65 miles per hour in a 30 miles per hour zone and he ran away,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said in a release. "Then he tried to deflect responsibility for his actions by claiming Ms. Patel was responsible for her own death by kissing him. He also put her family through more distress by pretending that she was still alive."

Campbell's attorney, Nancy Laskaris, filed a three-page memo with the court, stating that Freeman made "several misleading comments comments" that "clearly were made with the intent to influence sentencing."

"As the Hennepin County Attorney, it is inappropriate for Mr. Freeman to comment on a pending sentencing hearing in an open case that he is prosecuting, particularly when the comments are misleading and are intended to influence the outcome of the sentencing hearing," Laskaris wrote.

According to the criminal complaint and testimony, on Sept. 17, a woman was coming off of westbound I-35W when she heard a loud crash and saw a red Ford Focus "bouncing off the semaphore at Stinson Boulevard near Ridgeway Parkway about 3:40 a.m."

She then watched Campbell get out of the car and run to a nearby McDonald’s. She called 911 and saw Campbell return to the car and dig around for something in the driver’s side of the vehicle. The witness walked toward him and Campbell told her to call 911. She told him she had and police were on the way, at which point he ran east toward the Honeywell parking lot, according to the complaint.

Campbell left his wallet in the car and officers went to his house. According to the criminal complaint, friends said they didn't know he left the house after he and Patel came to the house about 2:20 a.m. and one roommate described him as “super drunk.”

"The roommates who described Mr. Campbell as 'super drunk' based that conclusion not on appearance, but on the fact that Mr. Campbell became angry with them when he came home with Ms. Patel at 2:30 a.m. to find a loud party going on at their house with many drunken and drugged party guests throughout the house,"  Laskaris wrote in the court memo. "They testified that he normally does not become angry so they assumed he must have been drunk."

In court, Campbell testified that he knew Ms. Patel was dead at the time of crash and yet he "sent her sister a text message almost nine hours later asking if she knew where Patel was."

Patel’s sister said Campbell then spoke with her on the phone and denied being in a car with Ria the night before. A portion of that call was captured on video and was played for the jury. Campbell can be heard denying driving and telling Patel’s family, “I’m freaking out right now. Where is Ria?”

According to testimony, Campbell ran about three miles to the home he shared with roommates on Randolph Street Northeast. He then locked himself in his room for several hours, calling Ms. Patel’s phone from a blocked number multiple times and contacting his employer to say he would miss his shift later that day but would return to work two days later.

Eventually, he took an Uber ride to St. Michael, where his parents live. He didn't go to their house, but he spent more than a day in town. Campbell's public defender says her client made three separate attempts to commit suicide, and that he was arrested as "he lay in the back seat of his mother’s car in her closed and locked garage with the windows open and the car engine running."

Campbell claimed in court that Patel "suddenly grabbed his face while he was driving and gave him a passionate kiss," and that the crash occurred during that kiss.

However, according to the attorney's office, Patel suffered numerous serious injuries to her head and face and Campbell had none. If they had been kissing, Campbell would have had injuries, too.

"It is true that the autopsy report showed that Ms. Patel had several injuries to her head and face and Mr. Campbell did not have similar injuries. Most of these injuries were internal. These injuries would be consistent with the kiss as Mr. Campbell described it," Laskaris wrote in the court memo. "The Medical Examiner testified that he had no idea whether Mr. Campbell would have been similarly injured under the circumstances. Mr. Campbell is reported to have run to McDonald’s immediately after the accident and spoken to an employee. He has absolutely no recollection of going to McDonald’s, which would be consistent with a concussion. Finally Mr. Freeman stated in his comments to the media after the verdict that the jury did not buy Mr. Campbell’s story. Often jury verdicts are based on neither the state’s nor the defense arguments but rather on the jury’s own interpretation of the evidence. It is impossible to say whether the jury rejected the “passionate kiss” claim as was reported in the Associated Press, because it may have been the act of kissing while driving that the jury found to be “grossly negligent.”

The jury returned their guilty verdicts after about three hours of deliberation, following a seven-day trial.

Campbell will be sentenced on April 5. The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines recommend a sentence of 48 months in prison, but Freeman said they will ask for the higher end of the guidelines range at 57 months.