After less than a day of deliberations, a San Luis Obispo jury on Thursday found a 25-year old woman guilty of vehicular manslaughter for driving intoxicated on Highway 58 and causing the death of Santa Margarita resident Denise Fox in April 2016.
Though jurors convicted Jessica Lea Allred of the manslaughter charge, they rejected the District Attorney's Office's more serious charge of felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, instead finding that she acted with ordinary negligence — a finding that will significantly reduce Allred's time in state prison.
Allred, who lived in San Luis Obispo at the time of the crash, was initially facing up to 10 years in prison. It was not immediately clear Thursday what total time she faces for the lesser charge, as well as the DUI charges and several sentencing enhancements. Though her attorney, Patrick Fisher, calculated her maximum sentence at roughly four years, Deputy District Attorney Chase Martin said it could be roughly seven years.
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Following the verdict, Fisher said Allred's was a "sad case" but that he found some comfort in the jury's rejection of the gross negligence allegation.
"There wasn't going to be a happy ending no matter what the result," Fisher said.
He added that he believes his client will consider an appeal.
Martin, who prosecuted the case for the District Attorney's Office, said the case arose from Allred's bad decision to get behind the wheel, thinking she was safe to drive.
"Most of us are poor judges of our competence when we've been drinking and (Allred) is no exception," Martin said. "This case is a tragic reminder that we need to keep ourselves and each other safe on the road. No one should lose a loved one like Denise Fox's family did."
Allred was returning to San Luis Obispo on Highway 58 after attending the Pozo Stampede event at the Pozo Saloon on April 30, 2016, when she crossed the solid double-yellow line in her 1999 Saturn and collided with a 1996 Toyota driven by Fox.
Fox, 56, was pronounced dead at the scene with the cause of death ruled as severe blunt force trauma injuries. Allred suffered two fractured ankles and a compound fracture in her leg and was taken to the emergency room at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, where a blood test examined by a Sheriff's Office lab technician came back with a 0.17 blood alcohol content. The legal limit to drive is 0.08.
In order to find her guilty of the gross vehicular manslaughter charge, jurors had to find that Allred drove under the influence, committed an infraction by crossing over double-yellow lines while she drove, committed that infraction with gross negligence — defined as "more than ordinary carelessness" — and that the grossly negligent act resulted in Fox's death.
Jurors found that Allred instead acted with ordinary negligence.
The trial lasted a little more than a week and included testimony from Allred, several CHP officers and Sheriff's Office personnel, blood experts, and a handful of witnesses who saw and interacted with Allred at the concert and on the road.
Allred testified that she consumed just three beers over the roughly four hours she was at the event, and finished the last beer roughly an hour before leaving to drive back to San Luis Obispo for a night shift at the restaurant where she worked. She testified that she didn't feel the effects of the alcohol, and several people at the concert testified that she did not appear intoxicated.
However, two motorists who encountered Allred on Highway 58 testified that they saw her swerving, blaring loud music and "dancing" in the car.
While in the emergency room at Sierra Vista, Allred's blood was drawn for a DUI test by a nurse who testified that she had never drawn blood for a DUI investigation prior to that day. Evidence showed the nurse rubbed an alcohol-based solvent on Allred's arm prior to injecting an IV, contrary to Title 17 protocols for drawing blood as part of a criminal investigation.
A CHP officer who oversaw the blood draw, however, contradicted the evidence in his testimony, saying he witnessed the nurse use iodide and a syringe, as Title 17 requires. Further calling the results of blood sample into question, the nurse also testified that her initials, which appear written on a label on the blood vial, were not written by her.
Fisher argued that the blood sample falsely showed a higher blood alcohol content because of the alcohol swab, and said other questions surrounding the sample tainted its results.
But Martin pointed to testimony of a Sheriff's Office lab specialist who performed the blood test, who testified that the alcohol-based solvent would not have affected the results because the test differentiates between enthanol (consumable alcohol) and isopropyl alcohol, which is contained in disinfectants.
Following the verdict Thursday, Martin requested that Allred immediately be taken into custody at the San Luis Obispo County Jail pending her sentencing hearing July 30. Allred has been out of custody on her own recognizance since her release from the hospital.
Despite Fisher's objection, Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen granted Martin's request, and Allred was led out of the courtroom in hand cuffs.