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Judge gives drunk driver eight years in prison. Two Fresno Bee carriers died in crash

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Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities increased in California in 2016, according to an Office of Traffic Safety report.
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Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities increased in California in 2016, according to an Office of Traffic Safety report.

A drunk driver who killed a husband and wife delivering Fresno Bee newspapers was sentenced to eight years in state prison Wednesday following tearful statements from the families of the victims and the defendant.

Looking down as the victims’ family members spoke to the judge, defendant Michael Merritt-Hutchins, 26, raised his shackled hand to wipe away tears.

His mother and father asked the judge to consider probation instead of prison because he is remorseful and is not a hardened criminal.

Late last year, Merritt-Hutchins pled no contest to two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.

Judge David Gottlieb denied probation but reduced the recommended 12-year prison sentence to six years, and added two years because two people lost their lives.

About 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 9, 2017, Daniel Mendez, 53, and his wife Ramona Mendez, 43, were out delivering newspapers in their van. They were heading east on Kings Canyon Road near Temperance Avenue when Merritt-Hutchins rear-ended the van at more than 80 mph. It is believed the van was moving at slow speed.

He had been out partying and his blood alcohol content level was greater than the legal limit of .08.

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Inmate Michael Merritt-Hutchins, left in red jumpsuit, stands as Sarah Casas, standing at a podium, reads a statement to the judge in Fresno County Superior Court. The defendant received eight years in prison for gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated that killed two people. Lewis Griswold lgriswold@fresnobee.com

The victims’ daughter Sarah Casas, 25, said through tears that the death of her parents has been all but unbearable for the family.

“I feel like, ‘What did we do to deserve this?’” she said. She has had nightmares and wonders how she will die, she said.

“I wish I had been in the car and not my mom so my siblings would have at least one living parent,” she said.

She forgives Merritt-Hutchins, she said, but “I want justice for my parents.” Survivors also include the couple’s son Daniel Mendez Jr., 17, Jasmine Mendez, Ramona’s stepdaughter, and extended family.

Prosecutor Esmeralda Garcia said a 12-year sentence is justified because Merritt-Hutchins’ drunk driving caused devastation. “This was not just a fender-bender,” she said. “There was no chance of survival.”

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Michael Merritt-Hutchins stands with defense attorney Sam Salhab during his sentencing for drunk driving that killed two Fresno Bee newspaper carriers. Lewis Griswold lgriswold@fresnobee.com

But defense attorney Sam Salhab said his client knows he did wrong and accepts responsibility.

“He’s a devastated young man for what he did,” Salhab said. “He made some poor decisions that night, that’s for sure...He took responsibility as soon as he had a chance to.”

His client is an aspiring artist whose talents should not be allowed to be wasted, Salhab said. Merritt-Hutchins has never had a felony before, Salhab said

Merritt-Hutchins’ mother Diedra Card, shedding tears and addressing the victims’ family, said “our entire family expresses incredible remorse for your loss.”

Referring to her son, she said, “He’s had to wrestle with feelings of guilt and pain. He’s incredibly remorseful for what happened.”

Sacramento Police visit local bars and offer voluntary Breathalyzer tests about once a month as part of a educational program to reduce drunk driving. These people got a look at their BAC on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2018.

Gottlieb told Merritt-Hutchins he was guilty of driving drunk and driving too fast, both “egregious” offenses. Time in prison is justified, but his lack of a criminal history and support of the community and family members must also be considered, the judge said.

The judge said he hopes prison is a “catalyst for some future changes” and urged Merritt-Hutchins to do more soul searching and come out of state prison a better person.

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