Joaquin Morales’s preliminary hearing wrapped up Wednesday after two more California Highway Patrol officers testified about their general experiences with crash scenes and large trucks. Morales is facing three counts of felony vehicular manslaughter after the runaway truck he was driving down Highway 154 in August 2010 crashed into a State Street home, killing the occupants.
CHP officer Scott Peterson — an expert in traffic collision reconstruction — began the day by saying that Morales was traveling 25 to 30 mph when he hit the bottom of Highway 154. Defense attorney Mark Pachowicz then questioned why this was not in the report prepared by the CHP Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT), of which Peterson is a member. Peterson explained that while the team as a whole compiled the report and chose to not include it, based on his experience he felt the speed was a correct estimation.
Peterson added that had Morales let off the throttle at the top to the San Antonio Grade, just before San Antonio Creek Road, he would have slowed naturally to 9 mph by the bottom of the pass.
According to reports written by CHP Officer James Richardson and MAIT, Morales had said he was familiar with Highway 154. However, Pachowicz refuted this, asking Peterson how he would define familiar, and if he would be familiar with a given highway after not having driven it for 17 months. Morales reportedly last drove on Highway 154 in March 2009.
Peterson also described the condition of the five axles and brakes of the tractor and trailer Morales was driving. While all the brake rotors had turned blue due to oxidation from overheating, they remained smooth and all but one was within the legal adjustment. The left side of the back axle of the tractor, the one that receives power from the engine, had fallen out of adjustment. But during Pachowicz’s cross-examination, Peterson testified this would only result in a citation and the truck would not be forced out of commission until fixed.
CHP Officer Larry DiSieno, a former big rig driver, testified that Morales could have dropped his load on Highway 154. But DiSieno said that at 40 mph, even if dropped on the shoulder, the rocks could have scattered onto the road and caused significant hazards.
DiSieno then diagrammed the mechanics behind shifting a truck similar to Morales’s. He said Morales could have driven in a slower gear and potentially let the road slow him down. DiSieno finished his testimony by explaining that big rig drivers are required to inspect their trucks prior to every work day. It remains unclear if Morales did so before his trip.
Due to scheduling conflicts, the final arguments and ruling — about whether enough evidence exists against Morales for the case to go to trial — will be held July 12.