Jury convicts Clovis woman of murder in drunken-driving crash

The Fresno BeeJuly 10, 2014 

Perla Vazquez listens to closing arguments on July 3, 2014.

MARK CROSSE — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

After five days of deliberations, a Fresno County Superior Court jury ruled Thursday that Perla Ibeth Vazquez was guilty of second-degree murder for getting drunk and causing a crash on Highway 168 in Fresno that killed a Clovis family man.

Vazquez, 27, sat silently until her mother and sister bolted from the courtroom in tears. She then buried her face on the defense table and sobbed.

In addition to murder, the jury found her guilty of felony hit and run causing the death of Frank Winslow and driving on a suspended license when she caused the fatal crash on Oct. 21, 2011.

The jury, however, was split 9-3 on five other charges in which she was accused of driving drunk and smashing into parked cars near Maple and Herndon avenues and leaving the scene on July 9, 2011, three months before Winslow was killed. Vazquez testified that her friend was driving and a tape recording of a 911 call from a witness who saw the collisions supported her version, said attorney Alan DeOcampo, who defended Vazquez.

Because the jury wasn't unanimous, prosecutor Steve Wright can retry her on those charges, but that likely won't happen since it won't increase her punishment, DeOcampo said.

As it stands now, she faces as much as 20 years to life in prison, he said. Vazquez is to be sentenced Aug. 12.

Because of high emotions in the courtroom, Judge Hilary Chittick allowed the jury of six men and six women to leave through a back door.

Afterwards, a relieved Nancy Winslow, who was married to the victim for 28 years, said Vazquez's murder conviction "was a long time coming."

Vazquez deserved to be convicted, Winslow said, because she had two other drunken-driving convictions before she killed Frank Winslow a few miles from the couple's Clovis home.

Now, she hopes Vazquez's conviction sends a message to repeat offenders that driving under the influence will not be tolerated.

"This was murder. This was not an accident," she said. "I'm very relieved that it came down in a just manner."

During the trial, 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 at the Shaw Avenue exit, causing it to roll down an embankment during the early hours of Oct. 21, 2011.

Vazquez, who was headed toward her Clovis home, left the scene before the California Highway Patrol arrested her just up the highway near the Bullard Avenue exit.

The crux of the three-week trial came down to the legal term "implied malice." To get a murder conviction, Wright had to prove Vazquez showed "implied malice," or a conscious disregard for human life.

In his legal arguments to the jury, 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," he told the jury.

But Vazquez testified that she was an alcoholic who began drinking at age 15. Her drinking problem stemmed from being molested as a child by a baby-sitter and feeling unloved by a stepfather, her lawyer told the jury.

She also admitted that she had been drinking at the Rainbow Ballroom in Fresno and crashing into Winslow's Jeep.

DeOcampo 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. He also told the jury "it would be wrong to convict her of murder for what she did in the past."

On the day of the fatal crash, Vazquez thought she could drive safely. After drinking beer at the Rainbow Ballroom, a friend drove her to a Denny's restaurant, where they shared a meal and drank coffee. Vazquez said her friend later gave her the OK to drive home.

"These actions showed she cares for human life," DeOcampo said in closing argument.

But his arguments weren't enough to sway the jury.

After the verdicts were announced Thursday, Nancy Winslow cried in court for her husband.

Vazquez's mother and sister returned to the courtroom after sobbing outside. A composed Vazquez then looked at her mother, pointed upward and touched her heart.

"She wanted them to be strong," DeOcampo said.

DeOcampo said he faced an uphill battle because of Vazquez's prior drunken-driving arrests and convictions. He and Vazquez had hoped that the jury would deadlock on the murder charge. This way Wright could perhaps offer the lesser charge of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, he said.

"I respect the jury's decision because they worked hard for five days," he said. "But I still don't think it was murder. I still don't think she had a conscious disregard for human life."

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

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