In the fall of 2013, more than 400 first-year MBAs matriculated onto the campus of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Nearly two years later, all but 10 would graduate. One of them who didn’t pick up a diploma was Zachary Katz — but not for any academic failing.
Today (Jan. 26), Katz was sentenced to five years and eight months of prison after having been found guilty of manslaughter and other charges stemming from a fatal accident in October 2013, an accident that took the life of one man and caused major injuries for two others. The crash occurred less than eight miles from the GSB campus where Katz had arrived only weeks earlier as a first year MBA student.
With about 10 teary-eyed members his family and friends watching from the gallery, the 28-year-old Katz was sent to prison by Judge Leland Davis in San Mateo County Superior Court, the conclusion of a long fall from grace for a once-promising academic talent. Denied probation and a request to serve his term locally, Katz will be transferred to a staging facility before going to a prison in California to serve out his sentence.
CONVICTED ON THREE FELONY COUNTS
In addition to one count of felony vehicular manslaughter under the influence of alcohol, Katz was also convicted by a jury last November of one count of felony driving under the influence of alcohol causing bodily injury, and one count of felony driving with .08 percent or higher blood-alcohol causing bodily injury. His defense argued that he his blood had been drawn illegally, that the crash occurred because of a epileptic seizure, and that he may have been drugged at a San Francisco bar–all arguments rejected by a jury.
“The defendant’s choice that night to drive drunk wreaked havoc on three individuals,” Deputy District Attorney Vishal Jangla said in the courtroom this morning. “That is why we’re here today.”
Geoffrey Carr, Katz’s lawyer, sought leniency in the judge’s sentencing, hoping that Katz would not get the maximum jail time of up to 12 years. Carr spoke of the young man’s history of “advancing his own career and medicine,” while calling Katz an “unusual person.” The defense also noted that there were 12 inmates who Katz has been helping academically while in jail since his sentencing in October.
‘THIS CASE IS WITHOUT QUESTION A TRAGEDY FOR EVERYONE’
Finally given a chance to speak, Katz expressed remorse for the victims and their families. “Every single day for four and one-half years, it has been at the forefront of my mind,” he said. “None of the arguments around my epilepsy change the fact that this was done by my hand.” Katz said his situation, and the actions that led him there, were “still unfathomable” to him.
Katz’s remorse — or lack thereof — was a factor in the trial and Judge Davis’ sentence. Asked by prosecutors during the trial how he could have written a novel while out on bail, Katz responded that he was now unemployable and had to make a living somehow. Judge Davis conceded he “was among those people” who believed Katz’s remorse was focused more on his own life and the lives of those around him, rather than those of the victims and their families. “The fact remains, your actions impacted the lives of many individuals,” Davis told Katz. Still, the judge reasoned, he could count on “two or three fingers” the number of individuals he has sentenced with Katz’s “training and heart.”
Jangla sought nine years and four months, but Katz was given the lowest term for all three counts in which he was convicted. “This case is without question a tragedy for everyone,” Davis said in passing sentence.
THE ACCIDENT & THE START OF A LONG LEGAL DRAMA
Today’s outcome, unless appealed, concludes the end of a long legal drama that began on October 5, 2013, just before 4 a.m. That is when California Highway Patrol officers found Katz trapped in his wrecked car on U.S. Highway 101 south of San Francisco. The then-24-year-old had somehow driven nearly two miles the wrong direction at 65 miles per hour down a major freeway before his Infiniti sedan slammed into a Ford Escape SUV taxi cab, which then hit another car. Both passengers in the cab were ejected, and one, Pedro Juan Soldevilla, 62, of Puerto Rico, died at the scene. The other passenger, Miguel Santiago, and the cab driver suffered major injuries; the driver of the other car was unhurt.
Katz was pinned in his vehicle, bleeding from his hand and leg. Officers would later testify that when they attempted to remove him, they smelled the “odor of alcohol” wafting from his breath and body. Two blood draws were taken at the scene — the first revealing a blood-alcohol level of .158%, and the second .16%, double California’s legal limit of .08%. Katz, according to the responding officer’s testimony, “displayed several objective signs and symptoms of alcohol intoxication: his speech was slurred and he had red, watery eyes.” Another test administered at the hospital, about two hours after the crash, showed Katz’s blood-alcohol level was .13%.
Katz’s sentencing in Judge Davis’ courtroom in San Mateo closes a convoluted case that involved multiple appeals and lasted years. Katz’s defense first argued that the blood-alcohol evidence was inadmissible because Katz never fully consented to a blood draw. In October 2015, San Mateo Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach agreed with defense attorney George Carr that Katz’s Fourth Amendment rights had been violated, ruling that the blood test results were in fact inadmissible because responding Highway Patrol Officer Robert Rich did not read Katz the consent law. San Mateo County’s District Attorney’s office filed an appeal , and in March 2016 the California First District Court of Appeal reinstated the blood tests. Later than year, California’s Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeal’s decision and refused to hear the case.
A CONVOLUTED, DRAWN-OUT CASE COMES TO A RESOLUTION
More twists were ahead for this legal drama. Eight days after the California Supreme Court’s decision, the U.S. Supreme Court gave Katz a glimmer of hope, ruling in an unrelated case that blood draws require warrants. Katz’s defense argued the point again in November 2016, but in January 2017, the Court of Appeal ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court decision did not apply to the “inevitable discover doctrine” on which the Katz claim was based. Then, in March, California’s Supreme Court again refused to hear the case.
Katz was able to post $250,000 bail and remain out of jail while awaiting trial, which finally began in October. The native of Long Island, New York, spent his free time writing a novel and working for small firms in industries unrelated to his previous career path, which had been the intersection of medicine and business. He also sought medical help for an odd medical condition that was eventually diagnosed as a form of epilepsy. And the seizures that Katz claimed to suffer from his condition became the main argument used by the defense in a trial that lasted nearly a month and included four days of deliberation by the jury before they returned a guilty verdict.
What was this medical condition? According to Katz’s testimony, obtained by Poets&Quants, Katz began experiencing “episodes” when he was 14 years old. He testified that the episodes usually began with a tingling sensation in his limbs, tightness in his chest, the smell of burning rubber, and, perhaps most strangely, the sound of classical music. Often, Katz testified, the end result would be that he blacked out. From 2008 to the year of the accident, Katz testified, the episodes occurred at least a few times a year.
After one particularly extreme episode, Katz decided to seek psychological help. He was diagnosed with extreme anxiety and began a regimen of prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. He was taking the medication the night of October 4, 2013, before the accident.
EPILEPTIC SEIZURE CLAIM GAVE JURY PAUSE, LED TO LONGER DELIBERATION
Katz claimed that on October 4, 2013, a Friday, he drove as planned from his dorm room at Stanford to the Castro District in San Francisco to meet a friend. Katz parked his car, met the friend, and went to a bar called The Mix around 10 p.m., where, he said, he consumed two rum and Diet Cokes before leaving around midnight to go to a “pop-up” event in the South of Market District of San Francisco.
He and his friend caught a cab to the event, and Katz testified that an acquaintance — a friend of his friend — ordered him another rum and Diet Coke. Katz remembers taking at least one sip but not finishing the drink. It was sometime after midnight when he walked into a bathroom near the event and started to smell burning rubber. Then came the classical music.
Katz testified that the next thing he remembered was waking up in his car after the accident. Then he remembers nothing until he woke up handcuffed to a gurney in the hospital, where he was told he had wrecked his car, and that someone had died as a result. No one with Katz that evening agreed to testify, so it is unclear just how Katz made it from SOMA back to his parked car in the Castro and then to South San Francisco, where the wreck occurred. Also, Katz was driving northbound in southbound lanes — the opposite direction of Stanford’s Palo Alto campus — even though he told the responding officer he was going home to Stanford.
‘JUST TRYING TO GO HOME’
The seizure claim probably caused the jury to deliberate for longer than usual — four days. According to court records and transcripts, the jury asked for two testimonies to be re-read to them — Katz’s, and that of Dr. Robert Fisher, a professor of neurology at Stanford and director of the Epilepsy Center at Stanford Hospital.
The jury handed down its verdict in November, and sentencing was set for January 5, but delayed for three weeks because members Katz’s family were unable to fly to California as a result of the major storm then battering the East Coast. On January 26, when he was finally told how long he would be spending behind bars, Katz sat mainly silently. During back-and-forth between the prosecutors and jury, which lasted about 45 minutes, he hung his head and stared down.
At today’s sentencing, it was another sad day for everyone. “My strongest feeling at this point is relief for the victims,” Jangla told Poets&Quants outside the courthouse after the sentencing. “This was not a choice for Soldevilla or (Miguel) Santiago. They were just trying to go home.”