LONG BEACH (CBSLA.com) — A man was found guilty Monday of two counts of assault on a peace officer and one count of leaving the scene of a Harbor City crash that killed a Los Angeles police officer and seriously injured his partner nearly three years ago.
But the eight-man, four-woman jury deadlocked on the remaining charges of murder and vehicular manslaughter against Mynor Enrique Varela.
The judge asked the jurors to deliberate further after they returned with the first set of verdicts, but ultimately dismissed them a few hours later when they declared themselves hopelessly divided on the two counts.
It was unclear whether the prosecution will seek to retry Varela on those counts.
The early morning crash at Anaheim and Senator streets on May 3, 2014, killed LAPD Officer Roberto Sanchez and left his partner, Richard Medina, with a broken jaw and other injuries.
Deputy District Attorney Geoff Lewin had asked the jury to determine if Varela, now 23, decided to use his vehicle as a deadly weapon “not to kill” but to try to stop the officers, who were trying to make a U-turn to pull over a vehicle in which one of his friends had just made a U-turn.
When questioning prospective jurors, Lewin said the prosecution was not contending that it was an intentional murder, but someone acting in disregard of a dangerous situation.
The prosecutor called it “shocking” that Varela took off after the patrol car in his Chevrolet Tahoe SUV after the officers began to chase his friend’s Chevrolet Camaro.
An analysis of the Tahoe’s “black box” determined that the 6,000-pound SUV had reached speeds of up to 63 mph and was estimated to be traveling at about 55 mph at the point of impact, when it barreled into the driver’s side door of the patrol vehicle, Lewin said.
Sanchez — a 32-year-old officer who had been on the police force for six years and had gotten married several months earlier — was pronounced dead about two hours after the crash.
Varela — a certified nursing assistant who was wearing a cast on his right foot — fled the crash site and surrendered to police nine hours later, Lewin said. Varela acknowledged to police that he had been driving the SUV and that he limped away from the scene, but denied knowing the Camaro’s driver, with whom he had been friends for about eight years, the prosecutor said.
Defense attorney Regina Filippone countered that the crash was an unavoidable tragedy and told jurors that the case is about Varela and “1.2 seconds in his life.”
Most people need 1.5 seconds to perceive and react to a dangerous situation, Filippone said, telling jurors that Varela had just 1.2 seconds to react as the patrol car began to make a U-turn and that her client swerved to the left to try to avoid the impending collision.
“He could not have avoided this accident,” the defense attorney said. “It’s a tragedy. It’s horrible, but it’s an accident. There was no hatred of the police. There was no reason for him to take his pride-and-joy truck and ram a police car — none.”
The defense lawyer acknowledged that her client left the scene, but said there was no evidence he was drunk at the time of the crash. When he surrendered later that day, he had no measurable blood-alcohol content, she said.
The murder charge included the allegations that Varela knew or should have known Sanchez was a peace officer engaged in the performance of his duties and that he personally used a deadly and dangerous weapon — his SUV — during the commission of the crime.
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