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Charges tossed in death of fetus

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A Culpeper judge is expected to rule Wednesday whether an blood-alcohol content test will be admissible in the trial of a man accused of manslaughter in the vehicular death of a 20-year-old Culpeper woman.

The loss of that evidence could be a severe blow to the state’s case against 37-year-old Orlando Cruz, also accused of driving while intoxicated when his vehicle crossed the center line and struck a minivan driven by Zulma Alvarez on Sept. 6, 2012. The prosecution lost part of its case Tuesday when the judge threw out charges related to the death of Alvarez’s unborn child.

In a pretrial motion, Paul Walla, Cruz’s court-appointed attorney, argued that a written record of the results of the blood test, administered at the University of Virginia Medical Center, was inadmissible because it was made solely for evidence purposes—without a search warrant—and because a transcript could not be cross-examined.

In opening arguments, Culpeper Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney David Barredo said that the deputy involved could not make it to the hospital within the three-hour limit after the crash to perform the blood-alcohol test on Cruz.

Instead, Walla rebutted, the officer relied on the word of hospital staff members when making his decision to bring DUI and vehicular manslaughter charges against Cruz.

Later in the day, Barredo introduced those records, authenticated by hospital electronics technician Kelly Woodson. Today, because of Walla’s objection, the prosecutor plans to call the U.Va. physician who administered the blood test.

Judge Susan Whitlock seemed sympathetic to Walla’s request to strike the results, but reserved a ruling until she hears the physician’s testimony. The doctor is expected to be one of the 30-plus witnesses the state will call to the stand in the bench trial.

Judge Whitlock, acting on a defense motion, did throw out all charges—including vehicular manslaughter—related to the death of Alvarez’s unborn son, Angel. Walla successfully argued that the nine-month fetus had no heartbeat or respiratory signs when delivered at Culpeper Regional Hospital after the crash and therefore could not be presumed alive before the accident.

In opening arguments, Walla acknowledged that this was “a horrible tragedy,” but said, “The accident was truly an accident.” He added that the results of the accident “have been hard for [Cruz] to bear” during his months of incarceration.

Michele White, Barredo’s first witness, told the court that she had almost been struck by Cruz’s green Jeep Cherokee as he pulled out of Williams Street and onto North Main Street.

She testified that he followed her to a stoplight at the junction of James Madison Highway, where, looking in her rearview mirror, she noticed the driver “jerking the steering wheel and causing the Jeep to jump” as both vehicles waited for the light to change.

She said that the Jeep’s actions became so erratic and dangerous that she pulled off into a turn lane near Floyd T. Binns Middle School and called 911 to report the vehicle.

“I was scared for my life, that’s why I called,” White said when cross-examined by Walla.

Instead of turning in at Dominion Skating Center, her planned destination, White testified that she continued to follow the Jeep north on North Main Street/State Route 229 to the stoplight at Route 229 and the Eggbornsville Road, adding that she kept the E-911 dispatcher on the line as she drove.

White said that while Cruz’s Jeep made it through the light and turned left on Eggbornsville Road, she was caught by a red light and forced to stop. When the light changed, she also turned left and followed, finding the wreck between Cruz’s Jeep and Alvarez’s Ford Windstar minivan about one-tenth of a mile down the two-lane road.

White was still on her cellphone with the dispatcher when she came upon the accident. A recording of that conversation—plus four more calls reporting the accident—was played for the court by dispatch center Deputy Director Jenny Rosenfeld.

One caller also reported seeing the Jeep “swerving all over the road near Mosby Meadow” before the crash.

White said that while she could not see the Jeep’s driver that well, she could tell that he was “of Mexican descent.”

According to the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, Cruz is an illegal immigrant from El Salvador. He is also charged with driving without a license.

Donnie Johnston:


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