A San Luis Obispo judge sentenced a 23-year-old man to nearly 14 years in state prison Monday, after a jury found him guilty of a drunk-driving crash on the Cuesta Grade that killed a teenage girl in 2016.
Following a two-week trial last month, a jury found Gino Lopez of Arvin guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, as well as driving under the influence, driving with an alcohol content of 0.08 or higher, driving on a suspended license and leaving the scene of an accident causing injury or death.
The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office had charged Lopez with second-degree murder because he had a prior DUI conviction. The jury rejected that charge after more than two days of deliberations but found him guilty of the lesser felony offense.
In total, Lopez was facing a maximum of roughly 19 years in state prison. On Monday, Superior Court Judge Matthew Guerrero agreed with a Probation Department assessment and sentenced him to the middle base term of six years for the manslaughter charge, plus five years for an enhancement for fleeing the scene.
Combined with the other charges, Lopez was sentenced to a total of 13 years and eight months in prison. He has nearly three years worth of time-served credits because he’s been in San Luis Obispo County Jail custody since the crash.
Lopez was accused of causing the April 19, 2016, crash that killed passenger Emily Reyes, 16, of Wasco and injured four others. Reyes was a 2015 graduate of Grizzly Youth Academy in San Luis Obispo and had planned to join the U.S. Marine Corps, her mother previously told The Tribune.
Lopez was speeding in a modified 1994 Honda Civic southbound down Highway on the Cuesta Grade with Reyes and two other passengers in the car when he made an unsafe lane change to get around a tractor-trailer, according to witnesses.
The Honda allegedly collided into a guard rail just south of TV Tower Road and had some contact with at least one of two tractor trailers before being hit by another vehicle. Reyes was ejected and died from severe head injuries, while another passenger in the back seat suffered serious injuries.
Lopez and a third passenger, Henry Aguilar, were not seriously injured and were later seen by other motorists tossing beer cans out of the wrecked car down a hillside along the western side of the highway.
Both men allegedly fled the scene on foot, but returned to the crash site a short time later. Aguilar has not been charged in the case and both he and the surviving back seat passenger testified during the trial that they unsuccessfully tried to get Lopez to slow down.
A breathalyzer test reported Lopez had a blood alcohol content of at least 0.10, slightly over the limit of 0.08.
Following two weeks of testimony, neither side presented a clear picture of precisely how the crash occurred, and motorist witnesses often contradicted each others’ accounts.
On Monday, Reyes’ mother addressed Guerrero, telling the judge that the loss of her daughter devastated her. She said the only comfort she has found through the entire event is knowing that Reyes died immediately and likely did not suffer.
One of the surviving passenger victims who testified in the trial was expected to read a statement Monday, but Deputy District Attorney Michael Frye told Guerrero that she’s “still having a really hard time grappling with this,” and asked the judge to recall her testimony, as well as that of her father, who spoke during trial of his daughter’s lengthy recovery process.
Lopez did not make a statement.
In his closing statement, Frye told Guerrero that Lopez’s conduct exceeded what was included in the lesser charges Lopez was convicted of and asked Guerrero to sentence him to the maximum amount, which Frye called “absolutely appropriate.”
Frye recalled the passengers’ testimony that they were shouting at Lopez to slow down before the crash.
“That should have stopped him in his tracks,” Frye said. “This was completely avoidable.”
Lopez’s attorney, Trace Milan, argued that the crash was “a needless accident” and took issue with a probation officer’s statement that Lopez’s criminal offenses — including a 2015 DUI — were “numerous and increasing in seriousness.”
“This is such a serious step up from the (previous offenses),” Milan told Guerrero. “Ultimately, this was a car accident that was the result of drinking and driving.”
Before issuing his sentence, Guerrero told Reyes’ family that watching her mother’s emotional reaction to seeing photographs of the crash site during trial was “very impactful” to him.
“The courts are often where people seek redress ... and in a case like this, there are no winners,” Guerrero said. “This is a heartbreaking situation for all.”
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