Do Clovis woman's actions in fatal DUI crash add up to murder?

The Fresno BeeJuly 3, 2014 

Twice convicted of drunken driving, Perla Ibeth Vazquez has admitted in court that her drinking led to a crash on Highway 168 in Fresno that killed a family man three years ago.

What a Fresno County Superior Court jury has to decide is whether her actions constituted murder.

After two weeks of testimony, a jury of six men and six women began deliberations Thursday on Vazquez's fate.

If convicted of murder in the death of Frank Winslow, the 27-year-old Clovis woman faces a minimum of 15 years to life in prison.

At the crux of the case is the legal term "implied malice" -- a conscious disregard for human life.

To get a murder conviction, prosecutor Steve Wright has to prove Vazquez showed implied malice.

Because deliberations started late Thursday afternoon, the jury will resume its closed-door discussion Monday.

In closing arguments Thursday, Wright said a drunken Vazquez ran Winslow off the highway during the early hours of Oct. 21, 2011, on Highway 168 at the Shaw Avenue exit, just a few miles from his home. Vazquez then left the scene before the California Highway Patrol arrested her just up the highway near the Bullard Avenue exit.

In making his argument, Wright cited Vazquez's drunken-driving convictions in 2006 and 2010.

"She knew it was dangerous to drink and drive, but she did it anyway because she didn't care," Wright told the jury.

But attorney Alan DeOcampo, who is defending Vazquez, said "it would be wrong to convict her of murder for what she did in the past."

He argued that Vazquez never intended to kill Winslow because she had taken steps to sober up before she got behind the wheel of her black Infiniti. "She had honest mistaken belief she could drive the car," he told the jury. "It was a wrong decision and it's a decision that she will have to live with for the rest of her life."

During the trial, Vazquez admitted she was an alcoholic who began drinking at age 15. Her drinking problem stems from being molested as a child by a babysitter and feeling unloved by a stepfather, her lawyer told the jury.

On the day of the fatal crash, Vazquez testified she drove to the Rainbow Ballroom for a concert and friends gave her cups of beer. "I don't know how to say 'no' once I start," she told the jury.

Because she felt "kind of buzzed," Vazquez said a friend drove her to a Denny's restaurant, where they shared a meal and drank coffee. They stayed at the restaurant for at least an hour before the friend drove her back to the Rainbow Ballroom to get his car. Vazquez said she and her friend then talked for at least 30 minutes before she decided to drive home.

"These actions showed she cares for human life," DeOcampo said in his final argument Thursday.

DeOcampo also pointed out that Vazquez's friend "believed she was OK to drive or he would have stopped her."

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, causing it to roll down an embankment. DeOcampo describe it as "a minor collision."

Though Vazquez had been drinking, DeOcampo said, "there was no evidence she was engaged in reckless conduct. In fact, she tried to avoid hitting the Jeep."

And when she was pulled over, Vazquez cooperated with the CHP, did a sobriety test, and told officers that she thought she had hit a Jeep, DeOcampo said.

Vazquez's driving record includes being arrested for speeding and drunken driving on Highway 168 -- 11 days after she pleaded guilty to her second DUI. Wright said she was driving 120 mph and her breath smelled of alcohol, her speech was slurred, and she did poorly on a sobriety test. But she was never charged.

In addition to murder and hit and run causing death, Vazquez is charged with drunken driving, hit and run and driving on a suspended license for an incident that happened July 9, 2011, three months before the Winslow collision.

DeOcampo agreed that Vazquez has a terrible driving record. But he also pointed out that every time Vazquez went to court she never contested the charges. "You can't convict based on her history," he said. "You need more than bad history."

Wright, however, said Vazquez's penchant for driving fast while drunk and with a suspended license clearly shows a conscious disregard for human life.

He also accused DeOcampo to trying to "sugar-coat" the collision by calling it minor: "The fact is she collided with Mr. Winslow's Jeep and he died."

Wright said Vazquez knew drinking and driving was dangerous. She had gone to drunken-driving classes after her convictions and signed court documents that warned her that she could be charged with murder if she killed someone while driving drunk.

In closing, Wright said Vazquez showed malice to commit murder the moment she drove alone to the Rainbow Ballroom.

"She went there to drink," he said. "She knew she was going out to drink and drive and she knew it was dangerous."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, plopez@fresnobee.com or @beecourts on Twitter.

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