An Arvin man who crashed while drinking and speeding down the Cuesta Grade, killing one of his three passengers, dodged a murder conviction Wednesday but was found guilty by a jury of a lesser gross vehicular manslaughter charge.
Following a two-week trial and about two-and-a-half days of deliberations, six men and six women found Gino Lopez 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.
While the manslaughter charge carries a mid-term of six years in state prison, according to Lopez’s attorney, the 23-year-old faced a minimum of 15 years to life if the jury had convicted him of the more serious second-degree murder charge filed by prosecutors.
Polled by Superior Court Judge Matthew Guerrero, the jury unanimously told the judge that they would not be able to reach an agreement on the murder charge, though the jury foreperson offered to continue trying. The foreperson said that jurors were split 7-5 on the murder charge in favor of guilt.
Lopez was accused of causing a 2016 crash on the Cuesta Grade that killed passenger Emily Monique 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.
After Wednesday’s hearing, District Attorney Dan Dow released a statement calling the case “tragic and completely avoidable,” and that Reyes’ death is a “sobering reminder that driving under the influence is deadly dangerous.”
“We are thankful for the difficult work carried out by this jury and we respect the fact that they were unable to reach a verdict on the charge of murder,” Dow wrote. “The guilty verdicts are a just outcome and Mr. Lopez will no doubt carry the weight of his actions for the rest of his life.”
Chief Deputy District Attorney Jerret Gran said that no decision has yet been made on whether the office will refile the second-degree murder charge.
Lopez’s attorney, Trace Millan, agreed with Dow’s statement that the outcome was fair and that jurors took their duties seriously. He said his client is taking the verdict as well as can be expected.
“He’s happy he’s going to get his life back at some point, but he’s been devastated since day one about the death of the young lady and the serious injuries to his other passenger,” Milan said.
The jury foreperson declined to comment on the deliberative process outside the courtroom.
The case against Lopez is known as a “Watson murder” case, so named after the advisement DUI offenders must sign that says they acknowledge they may face a second-degree murder charge if they drive drunk in the future and someone dies as a result.
Lopez had been convicted of misdemeanor DUI in Kern County about nine months prior to the fatal crash, and an Arvin police officer testified that he gave Lopez the advisement at that time.
A court trial to determine how Lopez’s prior conviction will affect his sentence will be held Sept. 19. He is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 3.
On April 19, 2016, Lopez was speeding in a modified 1994 Honda Civic southbound down Highway on the Cuesta Grade with three passengers in the car when, according to testimony presented at the trial, he made an unsafe lane change from the slow lane to get around a tractor-trailer.
Precisely how the crash occurred is a matter of dispute, but the Honda apparently 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 a Volvo. Reyes was ejected from the vehicle and died from severe head injuries, while another passenger suffered serious injuries.
Lopez and a third passenger, Henry Aguilar, were not seriously injured and were 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 testified that he had unsuccessfully tried to get Lopez to slow down before the crash.
Less than two hours after the crash, a breathalyzer test reported a blood alcohol content for Lopez of at least 0.10 — slightly over the limit of 0.08 — though Milan raised questions about the accuracy of the breath results and chain of custody for a blood sample.
Milan called no witnesses during the trial and relied on cross examination and a strong closing argument, with at least one juror nodding affirmatively when Milan held up photos of the wrecked Honda, but challenged jurors to find equal damage to any other car, truck or rail discussed in testimony.
Milan said Wednesday that he believes the Honda struck a second tractor trailer driving in front of the first, which continued down the highway.
“It’s hard to say exactly what happened,” he said.
Lopez has been in custody at the San Luis Obispo County Jail in lieu of $25,000 bail since his arrest. Following Wednesday’s verdict, Guerrero ordered he be held without bail.
Local news matters: We rely on readers like you more than ever before, and we currently offer free access to five stories a month. Support us further with a digital subscription to help ensure we can provide strong local journalism for many years to come. #ReadLocal