A motorist who pleaded no contest to running over and killing an 83-year-old Fresno man in a wheelchair in a hit-and-run collision in central Fresno was sentenced Wednesday in Fresno County Superior Court to four years in prison.
Edgar Ernesto Rueda, 23, said he was sorry for killing Army veteran Jose Rodriguez in July 2015.
In May 2016, a judge ruled that it appeared Rueda was racing with another motorist when he ran over Rodriguez on Cedar Avenue, north of Olive Avenue.
But Rueda’s attorney, Robert Lamanuzzi, said Rueda was only trying to get in front of the other car so he could turn right at McKinley Avenue, get on the freeway and go to work.
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In a plea deal, Rueda pleaded no contest in October to a felony charge of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. In exchange, prosecutors dismissed a felony charge of hit and run. If he had been convicted, he would have faced about 11 years in prison.
Police say Rodriguez was in his electric wheelchair crossing Cedar Avenue outside of a crosswalk when he was struck by a 2005 Dodge Ram pickup around noon July 20, 2015. Rueda left the scene and was arrested a few days later. Rueda then admitted to investigators that he was driving the pickup that hit and killed Rodriguez, police said.
Police say Rueda was speeding at 62 to 68 mph when he hit the wheelchair.
He didn’t want to die. He wanted to live.
Tomasa Rodriguez, the victim’s daughter
In court Wednesday, Rodriguez’s daughter, Tomasa Rodriguez, tearfully told Judge Brant Bramer that her father was filled with life. He had 18 children and 120 grandchildren and throughout his life he worked as a steelworker, ditch digger, mechanic and gardener, she said.
Though her father had undergone open-heart surgery to get a pacemaker, he was active, Tomasa Rodriguez said. On the day of the accident, Rodriguez had just finished visiting relatives and was headed to a bus stop on Cedar Avenue to go to another relative’s home.
“He didn’t want to die. He wanted to live,” Tomasa Rodriguez said. She said she and her family held no ill will for Rueda. In fact, she said they have forgiven him. But the family wanted him to get the maximum sentence of six years in prison for the felony manslaughter charge.
Prosecutor Tim Donovan also wanted Rueda punished, saying Rodriguez suffered a horrible death.
“He could have stopped and comforted the victim in his final moments,” Donovan said. “Instead, he was thinking only of himself and left. He was hoping and praying he would get away with it.”
But Lamanuzzi said Rueda, a construction worker, was eligible for probation because he had no prior felony record. The lawyer contended Rueda panicked after he hit Rodriguez and made a huge mistake by leaving the scene. If he had stayed, Lamanuzzi said, Rueda would have likely faced a misdemeanor manslaughter charge. “He wasn’t drinking and driving. He was speeding from one job to the next. He’s remorseful for what happened,” Lamanuzzi told the judge.
Lamanuzzi also noted Rueda didn’t see the victim until it was too late to stop. Rodriguez was crossing Cedar “where no one is supposed to be crossing,” Lamanuzzi said.
To forgive you is a living memorial to him.
Judge Brant Bramer
In announcing the punishment, Bramer said he didn’t believe Rueda panicked. He said Rueda hid his truck three times in order avoid arrest.
Rueda also received a ticket for spinning his tires in a parking lot in March 2015. A month before the fatal accident, he resolved the ticket by promising to obey all laws, Bramer said. Rueda broke that promise when he was speeding on Cedar Avenue and hit Rodriguez, the judge said.
Bramer said Rodriguez was “a wonderful human being” whose family also showed grace by forgiving him.
“To forgive you is a living memorial to him,” Bramer told Rueda.
“Here’s a chance for you to do something right,” the judge said. “If you truly want to honor this gentleman, then don’t break the law again.”