BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — A crash that killed a Bakersfield grandmother in 2019 was no accident, a prosecutor said Tuesday. It occurred as the result of a series of callous choices made by two men — one drunk — who engaged in a high-speed race in southwest Bakersfield, he said.
Ronald Pierce and Israel Maldonado probably didn’t want anyone to get hurt, but that’s beside the point, prosecutor Cole McKnight told jurors during his closing argument in the alleged racers’ murder trial. Pierce’s car crashed into a minivan, killing Maria Navarro, 58, and injuring two of her grandchildren.
“(Pierce and Maldonado) consciously knew what they were doing was dangerous to human life, they disregarded the risks to human life, and they did it anyway,” McKnight said.
The two are charged with crimes including second-degree murder in the Nov. 24, 2019, crash on northbound Old River Road just south of Ming Avenue and face life terms in prison if convicted.
The jury will begin deliberating Wednesday.
Pierce’s attorney, David A. Torres, said he and Maldonado’s attorney, Tony Lidgett, disagree on a lot when it comes to this case. They’ve attacked each other’s witnesses, and differed on certain aspects of their respective defenses.
But Torres said they agree on one thing: Pierce and Maldonado are not “cold, callous” people, and their actions the day of Navarro’s death also weren’t cold or callous. The facts of the case don’t warrant a conviction for second-degree murder, he said.
“The law allows you, the jury, to apply common sense to life’s experiences and decide who is a cold-blooded murderer and who is not,” he said during his roughly two-hour closing argument.
Instead, Torres said, Pierce should be found guilty of the lesser charge of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. He told jurors to set their emotions aside and follow the law in making their decision, calling what happened a tragic accident.
Lidgett argued Maldonado should be acquitted of all charges. He said the prosecution, to prove Maldonado guilty of second-degree murder, must show his actions caused the crash. But they didn’t, Lidgett argued, saying he wouldn’t even classify as what occurred between Pierce and Maldonado as a race.
McKnight told the jury Pierce’s actions, in particular, were inexcusable. He knew he was drunk and got behind the wheel then drove at speeds reaching 130 mph before he crashed into Navarro’s minivan, knocking it over a median and into southbound traffic, where it was hit by a crane truck, the prosecutor said.
Tests revealed Pierce’s blood-alcohol content was 0.24%, three times the legal limit.
Although Maldonado didn’t hit the minivan, he initiated the race by spinning his pickup’s tires at a red light, challenging Pierce, McKnight said. If Maldonado didn’t issue the challenge or had stopped racing, Navarro would not have died, he said.
“Maria and her grandkids didn’t deserve this,” McKnight said. He displayed photos of Navarro slumped over dead in the minivan as he finished his argument.
Torres agreed Pierce had been drinking and was speeding. But he said comments by McKnight that Pierce “knew what he was doing” and acted callously are mere speculation. The defendants’ actions are not comparable — as McKnight said — to firing a gun into a crowd, Torres said. Neither defendant meant to harm anyone, he said.
Torres noted his client’s blood wasn’t drawn until two hours after the crash, suggesting his BAC had been lower earlier. He played a video showing Pierce driving his red Mustang steadily as he left a restaurant and made his way down streets and through neighborhoods, stopping at stop signs and driving the limit, before encountering Maldonado’s pickup. After the video ended, Torres said he wouldn’t characterize his client’s behavior before the race as evidence of “callous-type” driving.
As he did earlier in the trial, Torres referred to a witness, Jamey Miller, who told police Maldonado’s pickup “nipped” or “nicked” Pierce’s car shortly before the crash. That bump left Pierce unable to turn and avoid the collision with the minivan, the attorney said.
“Why is this important, ladies, and gentlemen? Why? Because it answers, answers, answers that one question that nobody had been able to answer this entire case,” Torres said.
The question: How is it possible the event data recorder — as a defense expert witness testified — indicated the Mustang was being turned to the right but veered left? Torres said the answer is the bump knocked the car off Pierce’s intended path.
Police, however, found no physical evidence the pickup hit the Mustang.
And Lidgett, in his closing, said Miller was mistaken. He said he doesn’t believe she intentionally lied, but he called the jury’s attention to the lack of any evidence supporting what she said. The events she witnessed happened in a flash, and she “got it wrong,” he said. There was no damage to Maldonado’s truck or to the back of the Mustang.
Lidgett said there is one cause to this crash: Pierce’s poor driving.
Footage from Pierce’s car the night before the crash shows he repeatedly veered into opposite lanes. Lidgett played several clips for the jury.
“He’s just a bad driver,” Lidgett said of Pierce. “Not a bad person. He’s just a bad driver.”
After briefly stopping at the crash scene and calling 911, Maldonado and his girlfriend went to dinner and shopped at Target. This wasn’t due to callousness, Lidgett said, noting the dinner was a somber affair as the two tried to process what had happened.
The couple simply decided to continue with the plans they had made earlier that day, Lidgett said. That night, Maldonado discovered he was about to become a father for the first time.
As evidence of his client’s good character, Lidgett named multiple military buddies and co-workers of Maldonado who testified he’s a caring, kindhearted person.
Ultimately, Lidgett said, Maldonado did not cause the crash nor did he show callousness afterward. He said Pierce is responsible, and he agrees with Torres that Pierce should be found guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter.
“I don’t see second-degree murder for either one of them,” he said.
In his rebuttal argument, McKnight said Torres’ implication that Pierce was not drunk at the time of the crash is “unreasonable.” Police at the scene suspected he was drunk based on his manner and unsteadiness on his feet.
The prosecutor disagreed with Torres’ reasoning for why the Mustang veered left while it was being turned right. The car wasn’t bumped, it lost traction, McKnight said, playing a portion of the crash so the jury could hear the car slide just before impact.
“That is the reason he collided with Ms. Navarro,” McKnight said. “He wasn’t clipped by the Dodge van. That is the reason why this wreck occurred.”
It’s not speculation that Pierce acted callously, McKnight said. The prosecutor said Pierce’s uncaring attitude about his dangerous actions was recorded on his dash cam when he said, “. . . cuz I’m just kind of (expletive) up. Whatever.”
Maldonado also knew what he was doing was dangerous, McKnight said. Street racing has resulted in multiple deaths in Bakersfield, and any person would reasonably know traveling at the speeds reached in this case — he said Maldonado was traveling more than 90 mph — could result in death.
“This race happens because of Mr. Maldonado,” he said, telling the jury it doesn’t matter Maldonado didn’t hit anyone. “He is a substantial factor in this.”