A San Luis Obispo Superior Court jury on Thursday rejected the state’s argument that Tanner Mengore was high on synthetic marijuana at the time of a Oct. 25, 2014, crash on Highway 1 near Cayucos that killed two passengers and seriously injured two others. The jury acquitted Mengore on nearly all charges and found him guilty of a single misdemeanor offense.
Mengore, 24, of Los Osos could serve up to one year in County Jail after the jury convicted him of vehicular manslaughter for the death of 22-month-old Mason Simmonds-Gibson. The jury hung on a second, identical charge for the death of 17-year-old Simon Alberto Brito.
The jury’s forewoman told Judge Michael Duffy that jurors voted three times on that count and were unable to reach a unanimous decision. The final vote showed seven jurors favoring “guilty” and five voting “not guilty” for vehicular manslaughter in Brito’s death, she said.
Passengers Wendi Brito Gallardo, 21, and Michael Brito, 23, were seriously injured in the crash. Mengore, the driver, was the only person in the vehicle wearing a seat belt. Simmonds-Gibson, the toddler, was not in a child’s car seat.
Mengore originally was charged with two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, one count of child abuse resulting in great bodily harm, and felony DUI and faced up to 12 years in state prison if found guilty on all counts. However, the jury rejected the more serious charges in favor of the lesser included offenses.
Mengore, who was visibly emotional during the reading of the verdict, declined to comment on the jury’s decision. His attorney, Ilan Funke-Bilu said, “We are gratified and pleased ... with the just verdict.”
Speaking for the county District Attorney’s Office, Deputy District Attorney Lee Cunningham said he was disappointed with the jury’s findings.
“We felt like there was sufficient proof,” Cunningham said. “But we’ll live with the results.”
As evidenced in trial testimony, law enforcement agencies struggle with testing for synthetic marijuana, sometimes referred to as “spice,” intoxication.
“There are problems associated with proving under the influence when you're working with synthetic marijuana, or marijuana for that matter, that are going to plague prosecutors throughout the state until such time as we can get some registration guidance from the Legislature,” Cunningham said.
Tanner Mengore is scheduled to appear in court again April 14, when the state will decide whether it will re-try him on the charge of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter in the death of Simon Alberto Brito.
Trial testimony began March 15 and continued through March 24, with Mengore himself serving as the final witness. Jury deliberations began Tuesday after the prosecution and defense wrapped up two days of closing arguments.
Mengore is scheduled to appear in court again April 14, when the state will decide whether it will re-try him on the charge of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter in the death of Simon Brito.
According to testimony during the trial, Mengore drove the Brito siblings, who were longtime friends, and their toddler nephew from Los Osos to a smoke shop in Cayucos to buy synthetic marijuana. Mengore smoked the drug before driving the group back toward Los Osos on Highway 1, then lost control of the SUV while driving about 90 mph. The vehicle hit an embankment and went airborne before rolling several times.
Mengore testified that he didn’t feel the effects of the synthetic marijuana before getting behind the wheel. Funke-Bilu, his defense attorney, argued in his closing statement that Mengore was not driving impaired and that the levels of THC — the psychoactive ingredient in “spice” — in Mengore’s blood were low and “not well established” in a toxicology screening following the crash.
Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner argued in his closing statement that Mengore’s blood was first taken three hours after the crash and that THC blood levels would have somewhat diminished.