The commercial trucker accused of killing two women and four young children when his big rig hit a minivan two years ago yawned 14 times as he drove through the Grapevine.
Pointing out how many times trucker Richard Lopez yawned behind the wheel in the early hours of June 28, 2016, prior to a traffic collision in the southbound lanes of Interstate 5, just south of Gorman School Road, was a key point presented by prosecutors Wednesday in their attempt to show how fatigue played a role in the deaths of six people.
To that end, Deputy District Attorney Jamie Castro played jurors a half-hour video of a dashboard camera that had recorded Lopez driving along I-5. The video was shown as the Lopez trial is in the midst of its third week at San Fernando Superior Court.
The dash cam recorded a purplish image of Lopez in the driver’s seat, next to a vacant passenger seat. Below the recording was a speedometer that showed how fast Lopez was driving and a compass showing the direction he was driving, in this case, south and slightly to the east.
Jurors watched 30 minutes of Lopez driving — his mannerisms, facial expressions, head movements — and what happened when his truck hit the minivan.
In an effort to put the video in context for the jury, Castro asked California Highway Patrol
investigator Joseph Machado to interpret the recording.
At 3:33 a.m., four minutes before the traffic collision, Lopez is seen leaning forward in the driver’s seat.
“We see Mr. Lopez yawning,” said Machado. “Then he lunges forward over the steering wheel. He then returns back to a sitting position.”
Castro asked the investigator: “Is this the only time you saw him yawn?”
“No,” said Machado. “I counted 14 yawns.”
Machado, an investigator with the CHP’s specialized accident reconstruction team, known as the Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team, testified that he watched the video of Lopez driving more than 100 times.
He told jurors that, during his investigation, he sought help from an investigator who specialized in video enhancement so he could more closely examine whether Lopez’s eyes were closed at any point.
“I felt his eyes were closed, but it (video recording) was inconclusive,” Machado said.
“So I requested some enhancements.”
With the help of the video enhancement, the investigator said it was concluded: “His eyes were closed.”
Castro then asked him: “Based on your investigation, were you able to conclusively determine if fatigue played a factor in the crash?”
“Yes,” Machado said. “I concluded that fatigue was an associated factor in the collision.”
The court learned Friday — and heard again Wednesday — that there were two traffic collisions: an initial crash involving a BMW that rear-ended the minivan, a 2016 Toyota Sienna, and a second crash, in which Lopez is accused of rear-ending the same minivan with the big rig he was driving.
The two women who died inside the burning minivan were Connie Wu Li and Flora Kuang, both 33. The children killed in the same vehicle were Jayden Li, 5; Lucas Li, 3; Sky Ng, 4; and Venus Ng, 2.
Although the trial is into its third week, it takes place most days solely in the afternoon.
Since prosecutors began presenting their case, their witnesses have included the CHP officers who were first on the scene and the two surviving fathers of the family members killed.
Prosecutors have also played the 911 tape for the jury.
The defense has yet to present its case.
On cross-examination Wed-nesday, defense lawyer Ben Mironer questioned the training Machado received in collision reconstruction.
“In how many cases were you the lead investigator?” he asked.
Machado told him: “I would have to say between 10 and 20.”
Mironer asked if the investigator received any special training in assessing the “human factor” in collisions. “Did you ever take a course on the scientific aspects about the human factor?”
Machado replied: “A little bit.”
“Were you ever trained about fatigue?”
“Just my personal experience with fatigue,” he told him. “And reading literature on fatigue.”
“But none of your training ever examined how fatigue affects driving?”
Machado testified that part of his investigation involved “building a 24-hour profile” of the subject.
“But did you ever learn about fatigue?” the defense lawyer asked.
“I just know what it feels like to be fatigued,” Machado replied, eliciting some chuckles from some jurors.
The defense lawyer remained focused.
“You’ve never been in a course about how to notice fatigue?” he asked.
“No,” Machado told him.
“You’ve never been part of a scientific study in which fatigue was studied,” he said.
“No,” Machado told him again.
The investigator was asked if he ever drove a commercial vehicle, if he ever took a course on how to drive a five-axle vehicle, and if he ever took a course on astronomy — since the investigator testified about the effects of moonlight the night of the crash.
To each of these questions about training, Machado replied no.
The defense closed out the court date Wednesday asking Machado about the “first crash,” which disabled the minivan.
Machado said the minivan was traveling in the “No. 2” lane — which is next to the lane commonly referred to as the fast lane — traveling between 77 and 80 mph.
“The BMW was also in the No. 2 lane?” Mironer asked.
Machado said yes, noting the BMW was traveling between 97 and 102 mph when it hit the minivan.
Using an 8-foot fold-out illustration taped to the courtroom wall for the jury, Machado showed where on the freeway the BMW hit the minivan and that the BMW came to a stop by the center median with its hazard lights on while the minivan spun clockwise and then, through steering, spun counter clockwise, ending up in the curb lane, or lane No. 4, by the shoulder.
“Unsafe speed would have been a factor assigned to the driver of the BMW,” Machado said.
The trial is scheduled to continue this afternoon, when it is believed the defense may begin presenting its case.