Joaquin Garcia Morales pleaded no contest Tuesday to three reduced charges of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter for his role in the deaths of three people. His runaway truck crashed into their State Street home after descending from Highway 154 on August 24, 2010.
Morales was facing felony counts of vehicular manslaughter for the deaths of Leon Leonel, 22, Lorena Tellez Pacheco, 26, and Jaciel Tellez, 8, but the the prosecution and the defense came to an agreement prior to the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, where Judge Clifford Anderson was to make a ruling on whether the matter would continue to trial.
The charges maintain their label of gross negligence, but the penalty now carries a maximum sentence of three years in county jail rather than the potential eight years and eight months in state prison Morales was facing. The result is considered an open plea, meaning no punishment was agreed upon and Morales’s sentencing has been scheduled for September 23.
Mark Pachowicz, defense attorney for Morales, said he was satisfied that – as a result of the plea – Judge Anderson will oversee sentencing. Pachowicz said he feels Anderson will sentence Morales based on the facts he heard during the prelim hearing rather than the label of the charge. Pachowicz added that – had there been no agreement reached – the case likely would have gone to trial. Had it reached trial, a new judge would have heard the case. Pachowicz declined to comment on when the two sides began discussing a possible plea agreement.
He added that, because of his charges, Morales has been stripped of his truck driving license and has no plans to drive a rig again.
Pachowicz said during his closing arguments that his client hadn’t been charged with any traffic violations in connection with the crash, and the prosecution was relying heavily on hindsight in their case. He added that Morales was presented with a “very unique set of circumstances” and did an “absolutely amazing job of driving.”
Senior Deputy District Attorney Arnie Tolks said he had yet to speak with the victims’ families, but he felt that they would be satisfied with the reduced charges. Tolks said that with the plea, Morales is taking responsibility for his actions and will suffer the consequences. He added it is possible that Morales could receive probation and not serve time, but it is up to the judge to decide.
Testimony was held last week with three CHP officers speaking about their investigation, interviews with witnesses, and expertise in traffic collisions. Much of the evidence presented during the preliminary hearing was based on Morales’s alleged failure to examine his truck before his work day began, and his failure to slow the truck as it came down the grade. Statements were made based on witness accounts at the quarry and from those who followed Morales down the highway.
While the truck’s speed was estimated to be 45 to 50 mph, within the speed limit, the condition of the truck’s brakes was a main focus. Witnesses on Highway 154 said smoke was coming from the truck’s brakes on its way down, but only one was found to be in minor violation of the required adjustment.
The prosecution also questioned Morales’s familiarity with the road, having driven it in the past. They said he should have better used the grade and gravity to help slow the truck. The defense countered that he had last driven on the highway in March 2009, and even officers who patrol the highway daily can’t memorize the road’s terrain.