Former UCSB professor and Nobel Prize winner John Robert Schrieffer was sentenced to two years in state prison Monday for gross negligence vehicular manslaughter.
On Sept. 24, 2004, Schrieffer was driving in excess of 100 miles per hour when he crashed his Mercedes sports car into a Toyota van on Highway 101 near Santa Maria, killing Renato Catolos and injuring seven others. At the time of the accident, Schrieffer was driving with a suspended Florida license.
Another of the injured victims died two months after the accident and a third is paralyzed for life, said District Attorney Robert Mestman.
Schrieffer was hospitalized Tuesday for unknown causes, defense attorney Roger Lytel said. He said his client, who has diabetes, had difficulty with his breathing on Monday.
“The stress of what occurred has really affected his health,” Lytel said.
Lytel said Schrieffer originally pleaded no contest to the charges on July 25 with substitute Judge Rick Brown in exchange for a plea bargain of eight months in county jail. However, Judge James Herman decided the bargain was inadequate when he returned from his hiatus to preside over the case.
Mestman said he agreed with Herman’s decision.
“With the overcrowding of Santa Barbara County’s jails, Schrieffer might not have served anything close to [the eight months specified in the plea bargain],” Mestman said. “The fact that he is eligible for release in one year helps to guarantee that he will be in custody for a significant period of time.”
Mestman said the testimonies of the deceased’s family members may have influenced Herman’s decision.
“The hearing was very emotional and tearful,” Mestman said. “[The families] were very angry at Mr. Schrieffer for his criminal conduct, and rightly so. The victims were all part of a close-knit Filipino community, and the members of that community have been greatly impacted.”
According to a California Highway Patrol report, Schrieffer fabricated a story on the scene of the accident about being clipped by a truck and denied responsibility for the crash. Mestman said Schrieffer’s falsified account of the incident justified the harsher sentence.
“I think the sentence is appropriate, given the nature of the offense,” Mestman said. “He fabricated a story on the scene and had nine prior speeding tickets. He should not have been driving in the first place.”
Lytel said Schrieffer thinks he fell asleep at the wheel, causing him to accidentally press the accelerator. Schrieffer broke both of his kneecaps during the September crash, Lytel said.
The Nobel Prize website said Schrieffer received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1972 for his work on the theory of superconductivity. In his Nobel Prize lecture, Schrieffer described superconductivity as a phenomenon wherein electricity flows through alloys with almost no resistance at temperatures near absolute zero.
Schrieffer began his career at UCSB as a professor in 1980 and rose to the position of chancellor professor in 1984. He served as the director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara from 1984 to 1989 and left UCSB in 1992 to become the chief scientist of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee at Florida State University.