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Fatal California boardwalk car crash was accident, not rampage: lawyer

By Dana Feldman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A man accused of murder for plowing his car into crowds at a California beach boardwalk this summer, killing an Italian newlywed on her honeymoon, did not intend to harm anyone in what amounted to a "horrendous accident," his public defender said on Tuesday.

Nathan Louis Campbell, 38, has pleaded not guilty to murder, assault with a deadly weapon and 17 counts of felony hit-and-run stemming from the August incident at the Venice Beach boardwalk in which 16 people were also injured.

"This had nothing to do with him committing an intentional act," public defender Philip Dube told Reuters after a court hearing in Los Angeles on Tuesday, saying he believed the car may have had mechanical problems.

"This was a horrendous accident," he said. "The question is whether or not this was his fault."

Prosecutors say Campbell was at the wheel of his dark blue 2008 Dodge Avenger as it sped down the packed ocean front walk in Venice Beach on August 3, striking and killing 32-year-old Italian tourist Alice Gruppioni.

Witnesses said at the time it appeared that the car's driver had been aiming for pedestrians while driving down the popular boardwalk at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour as people screamed and scrambled to get out of the way.

Security footage aired on ABC News showed the car smashing into a crowd of people, before it appeared to back up and then drive into another throng at the boardwalk, a major Los Angeles tourist attraction.

Police said he abandoned the car blocks from the scene of the carnage, and walked to a police station in the adjacent community of Santa Monica where he turned himself in.

Dube said his client had not been under the influence of any drugs or alcohol at the time of the crash, which took place in an area known for its patchwork of street vendors, souvenir shops, restaurants and sporting areas in one of the city's quirkiest neighborhoods.

He also reiterated earlier comments he made after the crash that his client was mentally competent, added that this was "not a mental health issue." Dube also disputed that the car Campbell had been driving had been in perfect working order.

"That's simply not true," Dube said. "Sure, at the time of testing, but there were mechanical issues with that car," he said, without elaborating. "There's much more to this story."

Handcuffed and dressed in yellow and blue prison garb, Campbell sat stoically as his attorney asked a judge for further time to interview witnesses and allow for an expert to review a vehicle inspection report on the car Campbell was driving.

The judge in the case, James Dabney, refused and set a preliminary hearing for mid-November.

In 2003, an elderly man drove his car through a crowded farmers' market in nearby Santa Monica, killing 10 people and injuring 69.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bob Burgdorfer)

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