BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — One of the key pieces of evidence against Ronald Pierce Jr. in his murder trial for a deadly crash came from his own car.
During his opening statement Tuesday, prosecutor Cole McKnight showed a jury dash camera footage taken from Pierce’s Ford Mustang the evening of Nov. 24, 2019, which captured him speeding and talking drunkenly to himself as he raced a truck in southwest Bakersfield before rear-ending a minivan. The impact sent the minivan into opposite lanes where it collided with a crane truck.
The minivan’s driver, Maria Navarro, 58, died at the scene, and two juveniles in the vehicle suffered serious injuries, McKnight said while showing undated photos of the three smiling. Then he showed a photo of Navarro slumped over in her truck, having died before emergency personnel arrived.
The prosecutor asked jurors to return guilty verdicts on charges including second-degree murder against both Pierce, 53, and Israel Maldonado, 35, the driver of the truck he raced.
It’s alleged the Mustang reached speeds of 133 mph on Old River Road before crashing just south of Ming Avenue. McKnight said toxicology tests revealed Pierce’s blood-alcohol content to be 0.24%, three times the legal limit.
Pierce’s attorney, David A. Torres, said his client is guilty of voluntary manslaughter, but told the jury the evidence doesn’t rise to murder. He said witnesses will testify Maldonado’s pickup “nipped” the Mustang before the crash and Pierce was unable to turn despite trying to avoid the collision.
Torres said he’ll call an expert witness who examined the Mustang’s event data recorder — which stores a vehicle’s speed and other information — and who will testify to what his analysis of that information shows.
Tony Lidgett, the lawyer representing Maldonado, said 40 to 50 photos were taken of Maldonado’s pickup after the collision. There are no dents or paint transfer. He said it never touched the Mustang.
“There is absolutely no damage,” Lidgett said in his opening statement.
A number of witnesses to the crash and the events leading up to it spoke to investigators. All of them made factual errors, Lidgett said.
“We’re going to show that the eyewitness testimony in this case is completely unreliable,” he said.
At the trial’s conclusion, Lidgett said, he’s going to ask the jury to acquit Maldonado of all charges. He said videos and other evidence presented as the trial progresses will reveal why.
In addition to second-degree murder, Maldonado is charged with vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and two counts of reckless driving. The other charges against Pierce are gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and two counts of DUI causing injury.
McKnight said the events leading to the crash began when Maldonado challenged Pierce by spinning his tires, raising a cloud of smoke, after Pierce’s Mustang pulled up next to him at a red light on Old River Road at White Lane.
“The event that caused Maria Navarro’s murder was started by this man, Israel Maldonado,” McKnight said while pointing to the defendant, seated in the courtroom wearing a suit.
He played video footage taken from a vehicle behind the defendants at the red light showing their brief interaction before accelerating. A yellow vehicle to the left of Maldonado also leaves at high speed but slows down a short time afterward.
They raced north. A traffic camera at Ming Avenue captured the collision. It’s seen at a distance, but the minivan can be viewed traveling over the median and being hit by the southbound crane truck. The footage shows a cloud of dust rise as other southbound traffic stops.
Maldonado, who was traveling with his girlfriend, pulled over and called 911. He got out and checked on Pierce, then saw Navarro slumped over in her seat.
Not wanting his girlfriend to see the body, Maldonado got back in the truck and left, Lidgett said.
Then the couple went to a sushi restaurant for dinner and shopped at Target. Lidgett said he expects the prosecution to claim his client acted callously, but Maldonado and his girlfriend had already made plans for that evening and were simply following through with them. He said he plans on calling friends, family and co-workers who will testify to Maldonado’s character.
The attorney noted the couple barely spoke at dinner. He said they were shook up by what happened.
McKnight began calling witnesses Tuesday morning. The trial is expected to last at least two weeks.