The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Verdict in fatal crash set for Monday
The man accused of felony murder, involuntary manslaughter and driving under the influence of alcohol in a Culpeper crash that killed a pregnant woman will have to wait two more days to learn his fate.
Closing arguments in the trial of Orlando Cruz were completed by 1:30 p.m. Friday, but Culpeper Circuit Judge Susan Whitlock said she would not render a verdict until 10 a.m. Monday.
The 37-year-old Cruz was driving when his Jeep Cherokee crossed the center line and crashed head-on into a Ford Winstar minivan driven by 20-year-old Zulma Alvarez on Sept. 6, 2012. He faces the possibility of more than 70 years in prison if convicted on eight remaining charges.
Responding to a motion by court appointed defense attorney Paul Walla to throw out all nine against the undocumented Salvadoran immigrant, Whitlock did toss a maiming while under the influence count that related to Cruz’s passenger, Victor Landa, who sustained broken ribs in the wreck.
“There was no evidence that Mr. Landa suffered permanent injuries during the crash,” Whitlock stated.
Under Virginia law, injuries must be permanent to warrant a maiming conviction in such cases.
While Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney David Barredo put on more than 30 witnesses during the four-day trial, Walla called just one—the defendant.
Through an interpreter, Cruz tearfully and with hands clasped in a religious manner, said that he understood all the testimony and the consequences of the crash.
“I’m very sorry for that,” he said. “I’m very sorry for [Zulma Alvarez’s] parents. I ask them to forgive me. [What happened] was not my intention.”
Although Cruz looked towards them, Alvarez’s parents, Antonio and Esmeralda, sat with heads bowed during the testimony and refused to make eye contact with him.
Testimony by Dr. Teresa Gray, a toxicologist at the University of Virginia Medical Center, put Cruz’s blood-alcohol content at .264 almost two hours after the 6:25 p.m. crash. That is more than three times the legal limit of .08.
Cruz told a sheriff’s deputy at U.Va. Medical Center that he had three beers earlier that afternoon.
Two witnesses, Michele White and Ricky Rutherford, testified that Cruz was driving so erratically that both were prompted to follow him up State Route 229 until he turned onto State Route 729.
Rutherford told the court that he was so concerned that he cautiously ran a red light at the Route 229–Route 729 intersection to keep the Jeep in sight.
“Rutherford said that he saw Mr. Cruz’s Jeep go all the way over into the other lane and strike Alvarez’s vehicle,” Barredo said in closing arguments. “Mr. Rutherford told this court that Alvarez had no place to go.”
White, who said Cruz almost struck her vehicle three times in a little more than a mile, did wait for the stoplight to turn and came upon the wreck seconds after it happened. She had been on the phone with an E–911 dispatcher for about a mile while reporting the Jeep driver’s erratic behavior.
Zulma Alvarez was nine months pregnant at the time of her death. Manslaughter and murder charges involving her stillborn fetus were thrown out.
Testimony indicated that it was the position of the baby resulting from the crash that ultimately caused the mother’s death. Barredo said that during the crash, the fetus was pushed up against the mother’s aorta, which restricted blood flow.
Walla argued that Alvarez died because she did not receive medical treatment in time.
Testimony indicated that Cruz had twice been convicted of driving without a license prior to the 2012 accident, and that he had bought the Jeep in August, had it rejected at an inspection station the next day and then found a valid inspection sticker issued for a Toyota and stuck it on the windshield.
Cruz could get up to 20 years on a conviction of manslaughter while intoxicated and an additional 40 years for felony murder. DUI, unlawfully wounding and wounding during the commission of a felony could add another 10 years.