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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Jessica Herrera's Vehicular Homicide Trials: When Is An Accident a Crime?

     All drivers occasionally speed, cross the center line, roll through stop signs and get distracted. There is no such thing as perfection behind the wheel. No one wants to cause an accident, particularly one that results in injury or death. Whenever a driver's carelessness causes or contributes to a traffic accident that results in the death of another driver or passenger, a prosecutor has to decide if this act of negligence rises to the level of criminal homicide. Ordinary negligence that falls short of recklessness--the total disregard for the safety of others--is treated as a civil wrong rather than a criminal act. Vehicular homicide applies to motorists who are driving extremely fast, are drunk, high on drugs or fleeing from the police.

     On June 11, 2011 in Santa Barbara County, California, Christopher Martinez slowed down on Highway 246 east of the town of Lompoc to turn into a driveway that led back to a winery. The 28-year-old was showing up for his first day of work. As he slowed to negotiate the turn, Jessica Herrera, driving the car behind him rear-ended his vehicle. The collision pushed Martinez's car into the opposite lane where it was struck broadside by a pickup truck carrying two people.

     Paramedics rushed Christopher Martinez to the Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria with severe head trauma and a collapsed lung. He died the next day.

     A Santa Barbara County prosecutor charged the 22-year-old Herrera with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, a crime that carried a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. In May 2012, the Herrera trial jurors voted seven to five for conviction which caused the judge to declare a mistrial.

     Prosecutor Mark Smith decided to retry Herrera on the vehicular homicide charge. On February 8, 2013 the second trial got underway in the Santa Barbara County Court in Lompoc. In his opening remarks to the jury prosecutor Smith accused the defendant of driving too fast for conditions (65 mph in a 55 mph zone) and being inattentive.

     Herrera's attorney, Dillon Forsyth, argued that the crash that took Christopher Martinez's life was a tragic accident. To the jury he said, "There is no evidence a crime occurred. This is a circumstantial case. There is really no credible evidence that what occurred was anything but an accident. The fact is we simply don't know what happened." The defense attorney also pointed out that there were no signs that a driveway was coming up and that brake lights and turn signals on Martinez's car might not have been working.

     On February 13, 2013, after more than a day of deliberation, the jury reported to the judge that it was deadlocked eleven to one in favor of conviction. Another hung jury, another mistrial.

     It is surprising that so many jurors in these two trials had voted for conviction. Even assuming Jessica Herrera had been driving ten miles over the speed limit at the time of the accident she was not criminally responsible for Christopher Martinez's death.

     On February 28, 2013 at a hearing in the Santa Barbara County in Lompoc, Judge James F. Iwasko dismissed the Herrera case after prosecutor Mark Smith said the district attorney's office would not seek a third trial. To have gone forward with a third trial in this case would have amounted to prosecutorial misconduct.  

1 comment:

  1. Need your advice on a mortgage fraud case involving my mother's signature being forged.

    Before I signed in to Google+, I wrote a rather lengthy description, but the intent was the same. Did comment though that I think that the prosecution had a duty to continue if they had valid evidence, but also agree with you on it being a civil case (bipolar??)

    Kerry

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