Closing statements begin in Gorman manslaughter trial

Law enforcement personnel examine a vehicle involved in a fiery crash on Interstate 5 that killed six people. Photo courtesy of Rick McClure

The first day of closing statements led to an abrupt end in the San Fernando courtroom for the start of the final stages in the second trial for a man accused of causing the deaths of six people in a fiery 2016 crash.

Richard Lopez, 72, stands charged with six counts of misdemeanor manslaughter and one count of failure to comply with California Highway Patrol regulations as a commercial driver.

The charges stem from a collision that occurred when Lopez’s commercial big rig slammed into the back of a 2016 minivan near Gorman in 2016, killing four children and two women, which both the defense and prosecution have stipulated.

While both sides acknowledged certain aspects of the 3 a.m. crash, the two sides differed on whether Lopez, who’s been driving a truck for 30 years, was responsible for the deaths.

In court Monday, after two weeks of arguments and testimony, prosecutor Jamie Castro laid out her closing argument in front of a 12-person jury and Judge Sherilyn Garnett.

Lopez and his attorney Ben Mironer listened intently as Castro reiterated why the state was trying to hold Lopez responsible for the deaths of Connie Wu Li and Flora Kuang, both 33; Jayden Li, 5; Lucas Li, 3; Sky Ng, 4; and Venus Ng, 2.

Castro stated that based on the testimony provided by witnesses, Lopez worked a 14-hour day behind the wheel without taking the mandated 10-hour rest period. Castro also stated that while the Sienna minivan carrying the six passengers was on the right shoulder of the freeway in the dark, she said witnesses had seen that the vehicle’s hazard lights were blinking.

Had Lopez given himself the properly mandated 10 hours of rest, his drive to deliver thousands of pounds of wine to a Stater Bros. in San Bernardino would not have ended in the deaths of six people, Castro said.

“The kinetic energy of the Freightliner at 42 mph with 75,000 pounds (of cargo) … is equivalent to an average passenger car (weighing 4,000 pounds) traveling over 180 mph at the time of impact,” Castro said.

Castro argued that, had Lopez not been “fatigued” behind the wheel and in a hurry to complete his delivery, he would have been able to avoid the collision.

Lopez’s attorney followed Castro’s closing argument with his own, and started to attack the prosecution’s version of events.

Mironer stated that although the vehicle was on the right shoulder of Interstate 5, the minivan with six people inside was still 3.5 feet into Lopez’s lane.

Additionally, fatigue aside — although Mironer said his client had told officers on the scene he had ample rest — Mironer said video camera footage of Lopez’s truck cab showed the driver alert and aware. The defense also argued that a truck carrying a load as heavy as Lopez’s in the dark might not necessarily be able to negotiate a vehicle sticking out into the lane, despite Lopez driving at least 10 mph under the posted speed limit. Mironer said the prosecution’s contention that the Sienna’s emergency hazard lights were on was in dispute by other witnesses.

“Vote with your head, not with your heart,” Mironer said to the jury. Following this argument, Mironer referenced the dispute over whether the hazard lights were on and if the car was sticking out into Lopez’s lane. Mironer said these should be considered suspect by the jury due to an ongoing civil suit between the witnesses — the family members of those killed — and his client.

This statement about a separate civil lawsuit related to the crash drew an objection from Castro, which was sustained by Garnett. Castro said it was improper for the defense to bring up a civil suit by the two survivors of the crash during the closing arguments of the trial to the jury.

Court was adjourned soon after the exchange and Mironer, after the jury was dismissed, apologized to the court.

The jury was asked to return at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday for the second and final day of closing statements from the defense, after which the jury is expected to begin deliberating.

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