Updated at 7:30 p.m.
BY MARK REAGAN AND BERENICE GARCIA | STAFF WRITERS
A jury found 21-year-old Edinburg resident Luis Gonzalez not guilty on all counts for the horrific Aug. 9, 2018, head-on crash that killed three.
Gonzalez has been on trial since Wednesday, Feb. 26, on charges of intoxication manslaughter for the deaths of 3-year-old Joshua Powell, 33-year-old Marci Lou Powell and 55-year-old Maria Isabel De La Garza, in addition to a charge of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury for then 31-year-old Jeanna Guajardo, who survived the deadly crash.
The accident happened at approximately 9:26 p.m. just east of the intersection of Closner and Monte Cristo roads.
The jury began deliberations at approximately 1:30 p.m. Tuesday afternoon.
Gonzalez had admitted to taking a single Xanax that day to calm himself before a date with a girl. His defense has been that he fell asleep at the wheel after staying awake for 36 hours and that he was not intoxicated.
Testimony during the trial showed the level of Xanax in his blood was .066, which falls within the therapeutic guidelines for the treatment of general anxiety.
Gonzalez, however, was not prescribed Xanax and was not being treated by a professional for anxiety.
In closing arguments, Assistant District Attorney Roxanna Salinas told jurors Gonzalez bought the Xanax off a street dealer he knew for $3.
“And as a result with that pill he took three lives and caused serious bodily injury to Jeanna Guajardo,” Salinas said. “The damage that $3 did. A dollar a life.”
According to Salinas, Gonzalez was more concerned with himself and his date than he was with the community.
“He took that pill and then chose to drive,” Salinas said, adding that the therapeutic guidelines don’t apply to Gonzalez because he was not prescribed Xanax.
Testimony throughout the trial also showed that low levels of Xanax can cause intoxication in people, depending on the situation and how they handle the drug. And Gonzalez, who took the stand in his own defense Monday, said the night of the fatal accident was the first time he had taken Xanax and driven.
Salinas also disputed Gonzalez’s assertion that he fell asleep and wasn’t intoxicated, telling jurors there was a great deal of evidence to the contrary.
She mentioned the testimony of Maria Hernandez and Ramiro Perez Jr., who were behind Gonzalez that night on Highway 281 when all three vehicles exited the Frontage Road toward Monte Cristo Road. Both testified they saw Gonzalez swerve completely off the road onto a grassy berm.
She also referenced a witness who said they saw lights flicker just before the crash that caused them to exercise caution. This witness was behind De La Garza’s vehicle and the flickering lights belonged to Gonzalez’s vehicle.
One of the man’s defense attorneys, Oscar Vega, however, countered during closings that those flickering lights and that single swerve are the only evidence the state has that Gonzalez was intoxicated and is simply not enough to prove intoxication manslaughter beyond a reasonable doubt.
Salinas also compared Guajardo’s reaction to being seriously injured in the wreck to Gonzalez’s, who was pinned in his vehicle and suffered a ruptured spleen.
Guajardo could be heard screaming in agony on body camera footage taken after the wreck while Gonzalez was not screaming and even provided a phone number to a stranger to call his father.
Salinas attributed that to the effects of Xanax while defense attorney Adolfo Alvarez Jr. told jurors the fact that Gonzalez was able to provide the phone number accurately proves he was not intoxicated.
After the wreck, Gonzalez went into surgery and a little more than 12 hours after that happened, the man was being videotaped and interrogated by Edinburg police investigator Armando Celedon.
Alvarez told jurors that his client, who had a tube in his nose and had blood on his face, did not provide that statement where he told Celedon he took a Xanax, which caused the crash, voluntarily.
State District Judge Fernando Mancias instructed the jurors to disregard the video if they believed Gonzalez did not provide a voluntary statement to Celedon.
“The officer wasn’t fair,” Alvarez said.
The defense attorney also contended that the fact that both Gonzalez and De La Garza drove salvage vehicles that were not equipped with airbags contributed to the deadly crash.
He reminded jurors how a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper testified that in his opinion, salvage vehicles are unsafe to drive.
Alvarez also pointed out how Gonzalez was driving 29 mph and De La Garza drove 39 mph, arguing that the salvage vehicles contributed to the deadliness of the crash.
Salinas, however, told jurors the only reason the crash happened was because Gonzalez took Xanax and decided to get behind the wheel.
“This was not a tragic accident,” Salinas said.
As the verdict was read out, family members of the victims wept quietly as they sat in the gallery.
Alvarez said afterward that the case was a difficult one to work on.
“Anytime that you have a loss of life and you’re accused of intoxication, it’s very difficult,” Alvarez said. “When the facts came out it was clear that my client was not intoxicated per the state’s own toxicologist and therefore we’re very satisfied with the verdict of the jury in this case.”
He noted that Gonzalez had been in jail for a year and a half.
“So he’s suffered a lot, his family’s suffered a lot,” he said. “The other family has suffered a lot. We hope that everything can come to closure now and everybody can start their lives again.”
Regarding the decision to have Gonzalez testify in his own defense, Alvarez said it was an easy choice to make.
“He had a story to tell; he was there, he knew what happened,” Alvarez said.
“The police had, we think unfairly, taken an interrogation of him while he was at the hospital bleeding from his nose — having suffered a shock, having suffered a ruptured spleen and all the trauma he had because of the wreck,” he added. “So I think it was important to give the other side of the story now that he had time to heal, now that he had time to reflect, now that he had time to tell us what exactly happened on Aug. 9, 2018.”