After six weeks of testimony and evidence presented at the trial of a commercial driver charged with six counts of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, the prosecution began delivering her closing arguments.
Deputy District Attorney Jamie Castro dimmed the lights of the second-floor courtroom inside the San Fernando Superior Courthouse on Thursday to display the title page of her overhead presentation: “People vs. Richard Lopez.”
Lopez, 71, his jet-black hair combed straight back, is the veteran commercial trucker on trial. He sat quietly beside his lawyer as the prosecutor made her case, as he has for the last seven weeks.
“This has been a long time,” she told the jury, thanking them for their patience. “You have been extremely attentive. It’s not been easy on anyone.
“You have a tremendous amount of evidence to consider,” she added. “But just as important, is who we didn’t hear from.”
Castro clicked to the next overhead image of her presentation — a photo collage of smiling faces, two women and four preschool children.
“We are here, but these six individuals are not — two mothers and their four children. They’re not here because of the negligence of one man: the defendant, Richard Lopez.
“These are the six individuals we really have not talked about,” she said.
Lopez is charged with six misdemeanor counts of vehicular manslaughter for allegedly having struck a minivan with his Freightliner truck at 3:37 a.m. on June 28, 2016, in the southbound lanes of Interstate 5, just south of Gorman School Road.
The two women who died inside the burning 2016 Toyota Sienna minivan were Connie Wu Li and Flora Kuang, both 33. The children killed in the same vehicle were Jayden Li, 5; Lucas Li, 3; Sky Ng, 4; and Venus Ng, 2.
They were on their way to Legoland, Castro told the jury, to celebrate the birthday of one of children.
“These individuals were the public,” Castro said. “Traveling public roads from Northern California to Southern California, going on family trips,
“That’s why we have rules for our roadways,” she said. “But because of the defendant’s negligence, they are all now dead.”
After reminding jurors of the evidence presented over the past month and a half — testimony of the first CHP officer to arrive at the crash, the in-depth accident reconstruction prepared by the CHP’s specially trained Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team and the testimony of a veteran trucker similar to Lopez who saw the disabled van and avoided it — she turned her attention to the “elephant in the room.”
Elephant in the room
The “elephant in the room” was the traffic collision preceding the fatal one by 10 minutes, in which a BMW traveling at more than 100 miles per hour clipped the van, rendering it disabled and protruding into an adjacent lane.
“There has been a lot of discussion about the BMW,” Castro told the jury. “It has become the elephant in the room. You have not met the driver of the BMW. It is not part of this case.
“This is about the collision between the Freightliner and the van.
“And, you may say ‘The BMW driver was driving reckless and fast, why isn’t he charged with something?’ It’s what you’re curious about. That’s normal. But, you need to keep your focus.
“It is not responsible for the crash,” she said, pointing out that the collision involving the BMW happened 10 minutes before the fatal crash happened.
To make her point, Castro posed a hypothetical case for jurors.
“Let’s say the BMW crash sidelined the van and it was to the side of the road, then a band of robbers came by, kidnapped the kids, stole the possessions. Does that mean the (BMW) driver is responsible for the crimes?”
Castro also spent time comparing Lopez to the veteran trucker who spotted the disabled van about two minutes after the BMW collision and phoned 911 to report the traffic hazard posed by the disabled van.
She described Victor Ficek, who testified at the trial, as having the same amount trucking experience as Lopez, who “traveled the same roadways, traveled the same stretch through the Grapevine.
“You want to talk about a reasonable person,” she said. “Look at Victor Ficek. He discerned the van from over a thousand feet away. He knew exactly where the BMW was.
“The defendant didn’t see the BMW and that’s because he was so negligent. He was so fatigued. You have a negligent individual who killed six people in a very fatigued state.”
The prosecution is expected to continue making its closing arguments Friday.