The moment of truth in the Greyhound bus crash wrongful-death case could come Tuesday when lawyers fight over whether gruesome autopsy photographs of the victims should be shown to the Fresno County Superior Court jury.
California Highway Patrol Lt. Rob Krider testified Monday for the second straight day that all the evidence points to 18-year-old Sylvia Garay getting drunk, losing control of her SUV and overturning it on Highway 99 in Fresno in July 2010.
Garay and two friends in the SUV were among six people killed in the horrific predawn crash.
Krider contends seat-belt markings on the victims’ bodies prove Garay was driving.
But outside the presence of the jury, lawyers fought Monday over autopsy photographs that, if shown to the jurors, could impeach Krider’s testimony about who was driving the SUV. The photograph of another woman in the car, Vanessa Gonzalez, appears to show seat-belt markings that indicate she might’ve been behind the wheel.
Greyhound’s attorneys Dana Alden Fox and Esther Pardo Holm contend only a doctor can say whether the cuts and bruises on the victims’ bodies come from seat belts. Fox said lawyers for the families don’t have a medical expert to lay the foundation to bring the autopsy photographs into evidence.
But Judge Donald Black said juries in criminal cases often see autopsy photographs without hearing testimony from a medical expert. Besides, Krider has already told the jury his opinion about the seat belts, Black said.
The ruling brought smiles from the plaintiffs’ lawyers, who have fought to get evidence in front of the jury.
The crash on July 22, 2010, killed Garay; Gonzalez, 19; Stephanie Cordoba, 20; as well as bus driver James Jewett and two bus passengers.
The families of the three young women have sued Greyhound for negligence, claiming Jewett was speeding in the fast lane and wasn’t wearing his glasses when he plowed into the overturned SUV. They further contend the bus had bad brakes.
In the third week of the trial, Krider’s testimony has refuted nearly every accusation against Greyhound.
In his testimony, Krider has confidently told the jury that Jewett could not have avoided hitting the Chevrolet TrailBlazer because its dark undercarriage was facing oncoming traffic.
He also said Greyhound neither caused the deadly crash nor contributed to the victims’ deaths.
Under questioning by Fox, Krider told the jury that a witness, Lana Post, was wrong when she reported to the CHP that she saw a wrong-way driver on the northbound lane right around the time when the SUV was overturning.
Krider said Post was not credible because she was headed south in a big rig when the crash happened in the northbound lanes. In addition, no other witness reported seeing a wrong-way driver.
He also testified there’s no doubt Garay was driving because autopsy reports and photographs for the three young women show Gonzalez and Cordoba had seat-belt markings across their upper torsos that showed they were either in the front or rear passenger seats.
“It was a process of elimination,” he told the jury, noting that Garay had no seat-belt markings.
But when showed the autopsy photographs, Krider had trouble identifying Garay, Cordoba and Gonzalez. He testified that’s because he did not attend the autopsies and didn’t take the autopsy photographs.
The pictures are crucial evidence, the plaintiffs’ lawyers say, because Krider has testified that he initially believed no physical evidence linked Garay to being the driver. He deduced she was driving because her mother, Olga Garay, owned the SUV, and he said witnesses told his investigative team that Garay was driving. In a deposition last year, he repeated his assertion that no physical evidence linked Garay to being behind the wheel.
But in court, Krider told the jury there was hard evidence to show Garay was driving.
To settle the argument, lawyers for the families plan to question the crime-scene technician who took the autopsy photographs so they will be entered into evidence and shown to the jury. This way, the jury can decide whether Krider’s testimony about seat-belt markings is true.
Both sides agree that Jewett, a 32-year veteran of Greyhound, was making a run from Los Angeles to Sacramento when he arrived in Fresno at 1:45 a.m. About the same time, Garay, Cordoba and Gonzalez were celebrating a friend’s birthday. With the help of a friend, they had first gone to a liquor store in Fresno to purchase vodka and Four Loko, an alcoholic beverage. They then went to a friend’s home to drink. They capped the night by dancing at the Starline nightclub in the Tower District.
The lawyers also have stipulated that Garay had a blood-alcohol level of .11, Cordoba’s was .05 and Gonzalez showed no alcohol. The legal limit for an adult to drive is .08. But they disagree on who was driving. Fresno attorneys Stuart Chandler, Jason Helsel, Mark Vogt and John Fowler, who represent the families, contend Gonzalez was driving.
Because Garay is from Dinuba, she let Gonzalez drive because Gonzalez is a Fresno native and knew the streets better, the lawyers contend. Gonzalez also is Mormon, so her religion doesn’t allow her to drink, they said.
Krider, a 17-year CHP veteran and leader of the CHP’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team, told the jury Monday that he has more than 1,100 hours of crash-reconstruction training. He authored a 566-page report on the crash.
He testified that Gonzalez drove her friends in Garay’s SUV to the liquor store. Gonzalez then drove the group to a friend’s home to drink, he said. Gonzalez then drove to a neighborhood near the Starline nightclub, Krider testified.
To support his testimony, Krider told the panel that the investigative team found Garay’s cell phone at the crash scene. The cell phone had a video of Gonzalez driving Garay’s SUV shortly before 11 p.m.
But after the nightclub, an intoxicated Garay began driving, he said, refuting the testimony of two previous witnesses who told the jury that Gonzalez was driving. A third witness said Cordoba was driving. The three witnesses were friends of the women and were with them that night.
Krider testified that witnesses said the TrailBlazer was traveling north in the far right, or slow lane. Skid marks, he said, indicated that the SUV swerved away from an exit sign at the McKinley off-ramp and veered into the center median, hitting it with such force that it cracked the cement and caused the SUV’s airbags to deploy. The SUV rolled and came to rest on its side in the fast lane, he said.
The SUV’s front end was facing west, so the driver’s side door was facing the nighttime sky. Once the SUV overturned, Krider testified, 2 minutes and 22 seconds passed before the bus hit it.
Krider said a witness who previously testified that he saw two women outside the overturned SUV screaming for help before the bus crash never told the CHP that account. He testified that only Garay was trying to get out of the SUV — through a rear open window. She was partially out of the SUV, and the other two women were inside the SUV, when the bus hit it, Krider told the panel.
After the Greyhound struck the overturned SUV, the bus continued on the highway more than 400 feet before going down an embankment and plowing into a eucalyptus tree, killing Jewett and passengers Epifania Solis, 60, of Madera, and Tomas Ponce, 79, of Winton.
Fresno County deputy coroner Jeff Gentry has testified that the body of one of the SUV victims was west of the bus, down an embankment. A second female victim was south of the bus. The third female victim was behind the second victim, up against a tree, Gentry testified.
The families of the victims contend Greyhound was at fault because some motorists had driven around the overturned SUV while others had stopped and left their headlights or emergency flashers on in an effort to help the women. Plaintiffs’ lawyers told the jury that Krider had reason to embellish his testimony — at the time of the CHP investigation, Greyhound, as well as families of the dead and injured, had sued the CHP for negligence for showing up late to the crash. The lawsuits against the CHP were later dismissed.
Krider testified Monday it was common knowledge that civil actions were filed. But he told the jury that Greyhound neither hindered the nearly yearlong investigation nor influenced it.
His team never determined the actual speed of the bus before it rammed the SUV. He explained a “black box” on Jewett’s bus would have given him vital information such as speed, when Jewett hit the brakes, and whether he took any evasive maneuvers. Krider testified that he asked a Greyhound official to download the information, but there no useful data.
Monday, Krider told the jury that it wasn’t Greyhound’s fault that the CHP couldn’t get the data. The sensors that supply data to the black box were likely damaged in the crash, he said.
He also testified that regardless of who was driving the SUV, the horrific crash with the Greyhound bus was unavoidable because the SUV had no lights and the dark undercarriage had no reflective material. “He (Jewett) couldn’t see it,” he told the jury.