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Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Jean Soriano Vehicular Homicide Case

     In the early morning hours of March 30, 2013, on Interstate 15 eighty miles northeast of Las Vegas, a violent traffic accident took the lives of five people. All of the dead, and two others who were injured, had been in a Chevrolet van smashed from behind by a Dodge Durango SUV occupied by 18-year-old Jean Erwin Soriano and Alfred Gomez, 23. The dead and injured were members of a single family who were returning to the Los Angeles area from Denver, Colorado where they had been visiting a sick relative.

     Because there were several empty beer bottles in the SUV, police officers immediately suspected that the driver of the Dodge SUV had been under the influence of alcohol. Soriano, the 18-year-old, told police officers at the scene that he had been the one behind the wheel. Three weeks earlier, Soriano had fled from a juvenile guidance center in Santa Ana, California where teenagers with serious drug and alcohol problems were treated. An analysis of Soriano's blood revealed a blood-alcohol content of 0.12, a percentage well about the Nevada legal limit of 0.08 percent.

     On April 10, 2013, a Clark County prosecutor charged Soriano with seven felony counts of driving under the influence causing death or substantial injury. The magistrate set Soriano's bail at $3.5 million.

     Not long after the filing of the criminal charges, Jean Soriano's attorney, Frank Cofer, announced to the media that his client had not been driving the Dodge that night. On July 10, 2013, following an evidentiary hearing pertaining to the fatal accident, the judge dropped all of the charges against Soriano. To a Los Angeles Times reporter covering the case, attorney Cofer said, "Blood evidence on the passenger window and console matched Mr. Soriano." This meant that Soriano had been a passenger, not the driver of the SUV. According to the attorney, a shoe-print on the driver's side of the vehicle did not match his client's footwear. According to the defense attorney, Alfred Gomez had "manipulated" and "intimidated" Soriano into identifying himself as the driver of the Dodge. (Because Mr. Gomez had not been a suspect that night, the officers had not tested him for drugs or alcohol.)

     At the time the charges against Jean Soriano were dropped, Alfred Gomez's whereabouts were unknown. To the Los Angeles Times reporter, attorney Cofer said, "Police should never rely solely on a confession that's not corroborated by the physical evidence. Physical evidence can't be intimidated, it can't be coerced." (That's true, but unfortunately forensic scientists can be intimidated and coerced into presenting false science.) This case illustrates the power of forensic science to exonerate as well as incriminate.

     As of February 2016, no criminal charges have been filed in connection with the traffic accident that killed five people.

     The Sorpriano case called to mind the death of New York Yankees manager Billy Martin. On December 25, 1989, Martin was killed in a low speed, single vehicle collision during an ice storm not far from his home in upstate New York. Questions arose regarding who had been driving Martin's Ford pickup, Martin or his friend William Reedy. Forensic pathologist Michael Baden, after performing the autopsy and analyzing the physical evidence in the truck, concluded that Billy Martin, not Reedy, had been behind the wheel of the vehicle at the time of the crash. Billy Martin had been drinking and was intoxicated when the accident occurred. 

1 comment:

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