Jury goes into deliberations in Gorman manslaughter case

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

Following two days of closing statements, the jury entered deliberation Tuesday in the trial of a trucker accused of causing the deaths of six in a fiery, fatal crash more than three and a half years ago in Gorman.

The jurors will decide on the guilt or innocence of Richard Lopez, 72, for six counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of failure to comply with California Highway Patrol regulations as a commercial driver.

Lopez, the prosecution has argued, was negligent when his commercial vehicle, a Freightliner semi-truck, collided with a minivan and killed two women and four children on the southbound side of Interstate 5, near Gorman School Road, in the early morning hours on June 28, 2016.

Killed in the crash were: Connie Wu Li, 33; Flora Kuang, 33; Jayden Li, 5; Lucas Li, 3; Sky Ng, 4; and Venus Ng, 2, after the family’s van broke down on the way from Daly City, leaving the vehicle partially blocking the right lane, according to testimony presented by the defense during the trial.

On Tuesday, the jury heard final remarks from prosecutor Jamie Castro and defense attorney Ben Mironer. The jury was then asked by Judge Sherilyn Garnett to enter the jurors’ room and return to court with a decision.

The jurors were told during the closing statements from both the defense and the prosecution much of the same details they had heard throughout the five-week process.

Castro used expert testimony to argue that Lopez had the visibility needed to make a safer decision, and also showed dash-cam footage of Lopez’s cab from that night, showing the driver yawn 16 times during his drive, with the final yawn coming five minutes before impact.

The prosecution argued this was due to Lopez working a 14-hour-day without then taking a mandated 10-hour rest.

A phone call Castro played for the jury the night of the incident — with the caption “evidence of inattention and fatigue” — featured Lopez’ voice saying that he had a “time-sensitive load,” “no time to rest” and was “going have to get a little 5-Hour Energy on this one (referring to the popular energy drink).”

Mironer challenged the notion that Lopez was negligent and/or fatigued while driving, a point the prosecution was hanging its charges on, stating it would have been difficult for Lopez to have avoided the collision even if he had taken the mandated rest.

“The fact is that this case comes down to response time, and it’s very easy in hindsight to say, ‘Oh, this person had plenty of time to react,’” said Mironer. “But in a live situation, where you have one opportunity, where you’re talking about split-second decision-making … it’s easy to say, ‘You should’ve done this.’”

Castro played video in the court taken from a responding CHP vehicle the night of the crash, which showed the two remaining survivors of the crash being restrained by CHP officers as they tried to charge toward the minivan engulfed in flames.

“The arguments (the defense) is making are disingenuous, they are inflammatory and they are trying to inject confusion and questioning when there is simply no room for it in this case,” said Castro. “The evidence in this case has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that it is Richard Lopez’s negligence that is responsible for the deaths of six indiviudals.”

According to Mironer, the prosecution believed that Lopez, driving his near 75,000-pound truck at 42 mph, would have had 1.5 seconds to respond. However, Mironer said, in the previous trial — as the current one is a retrial due to a hung jury in 2019 — that he had an expert testify that Lopez likely had only a half-second to respond to the incident.

“My expert was of the opinion that maybe only a few people would have been able to avoid this,” Mironer said, adding that he himself had to say this as opposed to having an expert testify to this because the retrial conflicted with the previous expert’s availability.

Although their argument was generally the same as before, the prosecution, Mironer said, was able to “tighten up their case to cut out their weaknesses,” and bring in an expert of their own to testify to damning evidence against Lopez.

Mironer continually asked the jury to “vote with their heads, not with their hearts.”

If convicted, Lopez could serve up to one year for each count of manslaughter.

The jury is expected to resume deliberations Thursday, as Wednesday is a legal holiday, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

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