Charges dropped against man accused of murder in crash near Empire
04/02/2014 5:23 PM
04/02/2014 10:18 PM
Prosecutors have dropped all criminal charges against a San Jose man accused of murder in a suspected drunken-driving crash that killed a passenger last year near Empire.
DNA evidence convinced prosecutors that Arturo Serrano was not driving a Nissan Sentra that crashed into a tree April 14, 2013, along Highway 132, said Robert Forkner, Serrano’s defense attorney.
Francisco Gonzalez-Hernandez, 32, of Modesto died at the crash site. Serrano was injured in the crash and taken to a Modesto hospital. He was released three days later and booked at the Stanislaus County Jail, where he remained until he was released from custody last week.
The defense attorney said his client maintained his innocence from the beginning, and his office had information early on confirming Serrano’s story. He said he handed that information to prosecutors in the early days of the case, but nothing was done.
“Unfortunately, my client sat in jail for more than a year charged with murder,” Forkner said Wednesday. “That’s unacceptable. This evidence should’ve been followed up much sooner.”
During a pretrial hearing March 24, the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office informed the court that it was dropping the charges against Serrano. Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley said they received additional forensic analysis of the evidence from the crash site, which led prosecutors to believe they could not meet their “evidentiary burden.”
“The District Attorney’s Office evaluated the evidence provided to them and determined that the case against Mr. Serrano could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” Shipley said in an email Wednesday about the decision to charge Serrano with murder. She said the investigation continued, even after the charges were filed against the defendant.
“Upon receiving further evidence and evaluating that evidence, the District Attorney’s Office, per our ethical duty, determined that the evidence against Mr. Serrano could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” Shipley said in response to Forkner’s statements about the case. “Therefore, the case against Mr. Serrano was dismissed.”
The prosecutors declined to discuss specific details about what evidence led them to drop the charges.
The defense attorney said blood was found on the car’s steering wheel, roof and windshield that belonged to someone other than Serrano. A DNA analysis of the blood confirmed that Freddy Figueroa was driving the car when it crashed, Forkner said.
He said Figueroa tearfully confessed to Serrano’s family that he was the car’s driver but left the crash site to avoid prison. Figueroa’s family confirmed to Forkner’s investigators that Serrano was not driving.
Figueroa left the region shortly after the crash and hasn’t returned. Forkner said his office tracked down Figueroa in San Diego and gave that information to prosecutors, but nothing was done and Figueroa has gone into hiding in Mexico.
No criminal charges have been filed against Figueroa in connection with the deadly crash, which occurred shortly after 2 a.m. west of Bent Road.
The driver lost control of the Nissan Sentra, which drifted off the road’s north shoulder, and then south across Highway 132, east of Empire. The vehicle hit a levee and became airborne before slamming, passenger-side first, into the tree.
Forkner said prosecutors believed Serrano was driving the Nissan Sentra because two medics said he was found injured on the car’s center console. He said another medic said Serrano was found in the back seat.
Serrano was sitting in the back seat without wearing a seat belt when the crash occurred, the defense attorney said, and his body moved forward onto the center console.
Forkner said the District Attorney’s Office investigation into the fatal crash was “shoddy, at best. Our investigation was able to get Mr. Serrano out of jail.”
Initially, Serrano was charged with second-degree murder and gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. He also was charged with two misdemeanor counts of driving a vehicle prohibited without an ignition interlock device and driving on a suspended license.
All of those charges were dropped last week, and Serrano is back with his family in San Jose. He had been living with his girlfriend in Turlock last year and had been out with a group of friends the night of the crash. All of them had been drinking alcohol that night.
Defendants convicted of driving under the influence are advised by the court that a future DUI crash resulting in death could be charged as murder. Serrano had a previous DUI conviction in Alameda County.
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