Jurors to weigh evidence — minus a few details — in Hwy. 101 manslaughter trial

Philip Trujillo, a Las Vegas truck driver charged with four felony counts of gross vehicular manslaughter for allegedly causing a crash that killed four people on Christmas Eve 2014, is seen during a preliminary hearing. Both sides made closing arguments Wednesday.
Philip Trujillo, a Las Vegas truck driver charged with four felony counts of gross vehicular manslaughter for allegedly causing a crash that killed four people on Christmas Eve 2014, is seen during a preliminary hearing. Both sides made closing arguments Wednesday.

San Luis Obispo Superior Court jurors have heard over nine days of trial that Las Vegas truck driver Philip Ken Trujillo was reckless, that he made a series of dangerous decisions — including a grossly negligent left-hand turn — that culminated in the deaths of four people on Christmas Eve 2014. They’ve also heard that the prosecution’s evidence and witness testimony doesn’t support its own conclusion.

Now it’s the jury’s turn to decide. Jurors entered deliberation at the conclusion of closing arguments Wednesday afternoon.

Trujillo is charged with four counts of gross vehicular manslaughter, one felony count for each alleged victim: Crystal Reuck, David Castillo, Taylor Swarthout and Karen Szaz.

Deputy District Attorney Charles Blair argued that Trujillo was reckless and indifferent to oncoming vehicles when he turned his tractor-trailer from Highway 101 onto westbound Wellsona Road on Dec. 24, 2014.

But while jurors entered the jury room with notebooks and eight days of witness testimony recounting the series of events preceding and following the fatal collision, they did so missing one key detail: A coroner’s report that found methamphetamine, amphetamine and THC in Reuck’s blood at the time of the collision. Castillo, Szaz and Swarthout also all were found to have methamphetamine and other intoxicants in their system at the time of the collision.

That information, as well as any testimony or speculation about Reuck’s mindset, was excluded from trial by order of Judge Michael Duffy prior to the trial’s beginning May 12.

Trujillo’s attorney, Raymond Allen, wrote in his trial brief, “Crystal Reuck was suffering from depression and other mental health issues. This likely caused her to commit suicide. Suicide is supported by Reuck’s long history of mental illness, her history of suicide attempts and prior motor vehicle accident, the circumstances on the night in question and her failure to brake or take any evasive action to avoid the collision.”

In his motion to exclude that evidence, Blair argued that “it is well-established in California law that a defendant in a criminal case may not offer a victim’s negligence, or that of a third party, as a defense to his or her own criminal activity which caused the victim’s death.”

Blair further wrote that such an argument amounted to blaming the victim.

“It is unjust and contrary to law to place the burden on the victim to avoid a collision, caused by the unlawful actions of another,” he wrote.

Though Allen was prohibited from mentioning Reuck or the other alleged victims’ suspected drug use or Reuck’s mindset at the time, he and Blair nevertheless argued in closing arguments over Reuck’s responsibility on the road that night.

Allen said that traffic is a “dance” that involves give and take from all parties.

“We have to respect the dance even if there’s a law that says you have a right to go 65 mph,” Allen said.

The defense attorney said Reuck had “ample time, plenty of time” to slow down and avoid colliding with Trujillo’s trailer.

“I believe, with all due respect, that Ms. Reuck caused this accident,” Allen said.

It was a clear night with good visibility and dry road conditions, Allen said. The crossing where Trujillo turned was marked by a lighted truck crossing sign. He said other drivers were able to swerve to avoid striking Trujillo’s truck as it turned, but Reuck’s vehicle did not.

“She doesn’t slow down, she doesn’t even put her feet on the brake,” Allen said. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Why didn’t she react at all?’ 

Blair countered that “there can be a thousand reasons” why Reuck didn’t stop, “and none of them matter.”

“It’s really easy to put the blame on her, and that’s not right,” Blair said.

The prosecutor said Reuck’s reason for not swerving or braking was irrelevant because Trujillo was the one creating the life-threatening condition.

He urged the jury, “Don’t speculate about why this accident happened.”

In his final statement to the jury, Blair conceded that certain evidence presented against Trujillo was not as originally depicted. In opening arguments, Blair showed the jury a photo of the air hose system on Trujillo’s truck, which was duct taped together.

Blair said he made a “reasonable assumption” that Trujillo had applied the tape, implying Trujillo knowingly and willfully drove his truck when he knew the air compression system was faulty. However, trial testimony revealed the tape was applied by a tow truck driver, a prosecution witness, who transported the truck after the accident.

“These trials are a fluid thing,” Blair said.

Allen criticized the deputy district attorney’s approach to the evidence.

“They were willing to let you (the jury) believe that Mr. Trujillo put that tape on there,” he said.

Allen urged the jury to apply a critical eye to the prosecution’s case, reminding jurors that Trujillo, not Blair, deserved the benefit of the doubt.

“You have to be sure when you go back into that jury room that you will not regret your decision,” he said. “Not tomorrow, not next week, not for the rest of your life.”

If found guilty on all four counts, Trujillo could receive up to a decade in prison. If jurors acquit Trujillo on any of the felony counts, they also must consider whether to convict the defendant on misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, which carries a maximum of a year in jail.

Jurors deliberated for more than two hours Wednesday before going home for the day. They will resume deliberation Thursday.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7929, @andrewsheeler