Resolving case of 5 deaths too slow

12/16/2007 3:58 AM

12/16/2007 4:03 AM

VALLEY HOME -- Along Valley Home Road north of Oakdale, a makeshift memorial stands to honor five tree nursery workers who were killed in a traffic accident that happened just over a year ago.

The crash devastated their families and generated an outpouring of sympathy from people throughout the region even though most surviving family members spoke no English.

Fund-raising efforts raised roughly $30,000 to help send the victims' bodies back home to Mexico for burial. Shortly after the crash, five wooden crosses and other religious symbols appeared at the site. They're still there, as crisp and fresh as the day they were placed. A soccer jersey hangs from the barbed-wire fence. Fresh red roses adorn the area. A makeshift grotto houses a statue of the Virgin Mary.

In the Stanislaus County Courthouse about 20 miles away in Modesto, there's another statue. Lady Justice reminds us that justice is supposed to be blind. The scales she holds represent impartiality.

In essence, that means every person is entitled to due process and a fair trial.

Somehow, though, it doesn't seem fair that five people were wiped out in an instant, yet a year later the person behind the wheel of the other vehicle is out on bail and the case has taken only baby steps through the court system.

You wonder why the case against Justen Christensen, the driver of the pickup that crushed the car carrying the victims and who faces five counts of vehicular manslaughter, has gone to court 13 times and there still is no preliminary hearing date set.

The preliminary hearing is the procedure in which Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge John Whiteside would hear evidence to determine if Christensen should stand trial.

This is a case that started slowly and hasn't gained much momentum, even though Christensen, 27, has a history of heroin use and had been taking prescription medications, according to court records.

Scheduled for arraignment Dec. 11, 2006, Christensen couldn't appear in court that day because he still was hospitalized with his own injuries -- two broken legs and a broken arm -- from the crash. So the arraignment was continued, twice.

"We had the element of a guy who was seriously injured himself," said Jerry Begen, a Stanislaus County chief deputy district attorney.

Then came bail hearings in February, including one to have his bail amount cut in half to $50,000.

"Which we opposed," Begen said.

The reduction was approved, Christensen posted bail and is out of jail.

Court appearances in March, April, June, July, October and December dealt with requests from his public defender, Area Parke, to wait for completed reports, retesting evidence, and other items. And there was a Proposition 36 hearing to determine if the defendant might qualify for drug treatment instead of jail time.

In the meantime, the Stanislaus County Probation Department submitted a "pre-plea" report, which Probation Chief Jerry Powers calls a "what-if?" report.

Defense attorneys sometimes will ask what the Probation Department would recommend in terms of punishment if the suspect pleads.

"It's almost like a poker game," Powers said, speaking to the concept and not specifically to Christensen's case. "Show your cards, and if we've got a weak enough hand, they might proceed to the prelim."

The file includes input from Dan Balos, the California Highway Patrol officer who interviewed Christensen after the wreck. Christensen had been taking Vicodin and Xanax to help him with his heroin addiction, which his mother discussed with investigators, the report states. It lists a variety of prescription drugs that turned up in a toxicology report.

It also included statements from Silvia Reyes, wife of 35-year-old Alberto Padilla Gonzalez, who drove the other car. Her husband was the family's sole provider, she said. She has had to move out of the county to live with relatives elsewhere. She couldn't afford to attend his funeral in Mexico. Of the others killed, Victor Reyes, 21, was her brother. Miguel Lopez, 19, and Daniel Lira, 23, were cousins. Gerardo Quiroz, 23, was a family friend.

All five men worked for a tree care company in Farmington.

In Christensen's case, the Probation Department would recommend state prison time. Maybe that will speed up the process one way or another.

"We expect in January to have a plea or set it for preliminary," Begen said.

That would be 13 months after five men perished in the blink of an eye. If the defense chooses the latter option, a jury trial date might be a year or more away.

It's a case that could outlast a roadside memorial.

Justice is blind, and sometimes it's also painfully slow.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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