The drunken-driving murder trial of a Clovis woman with two prior DUI convictions started Wednesday with sharp words from the prosecution and a plea for understanding in her defense.
"She knew it was dangerous to drink and drive, but she did it anyway," prosecutor Steve Wright told a Fresno County Superior Court jury.
But the lawyer for Perla Ibeth Vazquez, 27, said she thought she was sober enough to drive during the early hours of Oct. 21, 2011. Vazquez hit Frank Winslow, 54, a family man and truck driver for Foster Farms who was only a few miles from home when he was killed on Highway 168 near Ashlan Avenue.
"Her negligence does not constitute an act of murder," defense attorney Alan DeOcampo told the jury.
A criminal complaint charges Vazquez with murder, felony hit and run causing death, and driving on a suspended license, a misdemeanor.
She also is charged with drunken driving, hit and run and driving on a suspended license for an incident that happened July 9, 2011, just three months before the fatal collision that claimed Winslow's life. Wright contends Vazquez was drunk when she hit two parked cars on Maple Avenue near Herndon Avenue.
If convicted of murder, Vazquez faces 15 years to life in prison.
Wednesday, family and friends from both sides filled Judge Hilary Chittick's courtroom to hear the evidence.
In opening statements, both sides agreed that Vazquez had a blood-alcohol of .13 -- which is over the .08 legal limit to drive -- when she rear-ended Winslow's Jeep Wrangler. The Jeep ran down an embankment and rolled several times, causing Winslow to suffer fatal injuries. Vazquez left the scene before she was caught near the Shaw Avenue exit.
To get a murder conviction, Wright has to prove that Vazquez showed a conscious disregard for human life.
He laid the groundwork by telling the jury that Vazquez had pleaded guilty to drunken driving in Tulare County in 2006 and again in Fresno County in 2010. Each time, a judge warned her that if she got drunk and killed someone, she could be charged with murder, Wright said.
Wright also told the jury about another incident. In August 2010, just 11 days after she pleaded guilty to her second DUI, the California Highway Patrol caught Vazquez driving 120 mph on a local highway. Her breath smelled of alcohol, her speech was slurred, and she did poorly on a sobriety test, so the officer arrested her, Wright said. But she was never charged.
In defending Vazquez, DeOcampo told the jury that his client was a hard worker and had a job before her arrest in connection with Winslow's death. He also said Vazquez was an alcoholic, an addiction that came from being molested as a child by a baby-sitter and a feeling of being unloved by a stepfather.
Hours before the fatal crash, DeOcampo said Vazquez was drinking at the Rainbow Ballroom in Fresno. Because she was drunk, a friend drove her to Denny's to eat, drink coffee and sober up, he said. They stayed at the restaurant for more than an hour, he said.
The friend then drove her back to the Rainbow Ballroom to get his car. The friend and Vazquez talked at least 30 minutes before the friend told her it was OK for her to drive home, DeOcampo said.
"She thought she was able to drive," DeOcampo told the jury. "She wasn't driving reckless. She wasn't running red lights or speeding."
DeOcampo noted that it wasn't a typical drunken-driving collision in which two motorists slam head-on into each other or one motorist "gets T-boned." Instead, Vazquez's car hit the driver's side rear tire of the Jeep, causing Winslow to lose control.
An accident reconstruction specialist will testify that it was a "minor collision," DeOcampo said.
"Winslow's death," DeOcampo said, "was an act of negligence, not an act of murder."
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