PUEBLO — It will be nearly a year following the fatal crash that killed three Alamosa teens before the man charged with their deaths goes to trial.
Yesterday afternoon Judge Thomas Flesher set a two-week trial to begin April 2, 2013, for Gilbert Sanchez, 36, charged with multiple counts of vehicular homicide related to the April 28 deaths of Alamosa youth Anisa Montoya, 18, Serina Sena, 14, and Selena Mascarenas, 14 in Pueblo. The teens had attended a church event that evening when their car collided with Sanchez’s pickup at the intersection of Northern and Pueblo Boulevard.
The trial next year will begin two days before what would have been Selena’s 15th birthday.
In addition to felony vehicular homicide, Sanchez, a Pueblo resident, is charged with felony vehicular assault and child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury in relationship to the two young passengers riding in the bed of his pickup that evening, Jade Dorrance and Jordyn Carrillo. He also faces charges of driving under the influence, reckless driving and traffic control signal violation.
Sanchez, who is free on bond, appeared in court with defense attorneys for motions hearings and arguments on Monday and Wednesday. Judge Flesher ruled on some of the motions on Wednesday and said he would issue future written orders on the others.
As well as scheduling the April 2 trial, the judge scheduled a pretrial hearing for March 1.
The first officer to arrive at the scene, Pueblo Police Officer Jeff Capito testified during much of Monday afternoon regarding the events of April 28. Judge Flesher then continued the motions hearing until yesterday when defense and prosecuting attorneys argued the motions before the judge.
Sanchez’s attorneys argued for the suppression of statements and blood draws taken from Sanchez the night of April 28, when his blood alcohol levels registered considerably higher than the legal limit.
His attorneys argued that Sanchez’s statements were either not made voluntarily or were taken in violation of his Miranda rights (the right to remain silent, have an attorney present, etc.) After Officer Capito placed Sanchez in custody that night and read him his Miranda rights, Sanchez invoked his right to an attorney.
Sanchez’s defense attorneys argued to the judge that even before Capito placed handcuffs on Sanchez and put him in his patrol car, Sanchez was essentially in custody because he was “trapped in the wreckage of his own vehicle.”
They argued that Sanchez was not free to leave at that point and that after Capito’s first contact with Sanchez the officer left Sanchez in his vehicle, where he was trapped, and investigated other aspects of the crash scene before returning to Sanchez. By that time, so many police and emergency vehicles were at the scene that they created a physical perimeter so Sanchez could not have freely left the scene if he wanted to, his attorneys argued.
Prosecuting attorneys from the district attorney’s office argued that if Sanchez was trapped in his own vehicle it was through no action of the police officer but as a result of Sanchez’s own actions. They added that when Officer Capito left Sanchez after his first exchange with him it was because fire/rescue workers had arrived to check on Sanchez’s medical status. When Capito returned, the emergency medical team related to the officer that Sanchez did not have any injuries severe enough for him to be immediately transported for treatment.
Sanchez’s defense attorneys argued that Sanchez’s statements should be suppressed because he was not given his Miranda rights until after he had already spoken with Officer Capito, and all of those initial statements about whether he was the driver and how much he had had to drink that night were not given voluntarily but in response to questions from the officer.
Sanchez’s attorneys argued this was interrogation and coercion. They said the fact Sanchez invoked his right to legal counsel as soon as he was afforded that option indicates he would have done so earlier if given the chance.
“Mr. Sanchez was in custody from the beginning, from the time of the first contact,” his attorneys argued to the judge yesterday. “He should have been Mirandized before any questions were asked.”
Attorneys for the prosecution argued that Officer Capito as the first officer on the scene took reasonable actions in assessing the situation and in trying to find out who was involved and the extent of injuries of those concerned. His initial questions to Sanchez that night were consistent with an accident investigation, not an interrogation, the prosecuting attorneys argued. Capito initially asked Sanchez if he was all right, for example, and then asked if he was the driver.
“That’s an officer checking out an accident scene,” prosecutors said. “That’s reasonable actions by an officer checking out an accident scene … This was still an investigatory stage … An officer has the right to conduct an investigation and ask questions to find out what is going on.”
One of the witnesses at the scene told Capito the man in the truck’s backseat had actually been driving and jumped in the backseat after the crash and that he (the witness) believed the driver had been drinking. Based on that initial information, Officer Capito asked Sanchez if he had been drinking and how much, which were reasonable questions at that point, prosecuting attorneys told the judge. Capito had probable cause, as well as extensive experience as DUI officer and trainer, to make those inquiries and ultimately to arrest Sanchez for DUI, which he did.
Defense attorneys wanted any statements suppressed that Sanchez made to Capito at the hospital while the two waited for blood draws to be made. They argued that at that point Sanchez had invoked his right to an attorney, and Capito had testified that he recognized that right and did not ask any further questions of Sanchez. However, asking questions is not the only factor considered interrogation, defense attorneys argued, and Capito’s responses to Sanchez’s questions at the hospital could hold the same weight as an interrogation.
Defense attorneys also sought for Sanchez’s blood results to be suppressed because they argued Sanchez was in custody and had invoked his right to an attorney before he was taken to the hospital for the blood draws and given an advisement on expressed consent. They also had issue with the fact three blood draws were taken when they argued one would have sufficed, and the officer did not have the right to require as many as he wanted to be taken. They said the second and third blood draws were unnecessary and invasive.
Prosecutors referred to the statute governing vehicular homicides where the defendant does not have to give consent for blood work.
“If the officer has probable cause, he can take the draws,” they argued.
The defendant is not entitled to a lawyer before that occurs and the defendant must cooperate, the prosecutors added. They explained the three blood draws that night were reasonable because they were based on the Colorado Department of Health recommendation to extract three blood samples over a period of time to be able to extrapolate how much alcohol was in the system at the time of an incident.
Judge Flesher cut short some of the arguments Wednesday afternoon such as discussions about the relevance and interpretation of the initials on a T-shirt Sanchez was wearing the night of the crash and discussions over discovery that might or might not be available. The judge ordered that as evidentiary data became available, it should be provided to the defense in a reasonable amount of time. Regarding the T-shirt, the judge ordered that witnesses would not be allowed to give an opinion about what the initials meant.
The judge also gave the defense latitude to file more motions but advised them to be specific in what they were seeking.
The judge did not rule on the majority of the motions on Wednesday but said he would issue subsequent written orders.
“I need to spend some time looking at the case,” Judge Flesher said at the conclusion of the attorneys’ arguments late Wednesday afternoon. “It’s my intention to issue a written order in this case. Given the type of case this is, that’s the appropriate way to address the motions.”