On July 5th of this year, Juan Francisco Moreno Herrera, 43 of Salida, California, was arrested on suspicion of murder after a collision between Herrera’s boat and a jet ski carrying a couple of teenagers. It was alleged that Herrera was operating his boat under the influence and, as a result, collided Vanessa Zamora, 14, of Watsonville, California, killing her and causing injuries to her 15-year-old cousin. Prosecutors also charged Herrera with two felony counts of driving a boat under the influence of alcohol.
Initially, according to prosecutors, Herrera caused the injuries to the girls because he was driving “his boat around in circles and did not attempt” to help either injured girl in the water following the collision.
Under California Law, a DUI resulting in death will be charged as manslaughter if the driver has not suffered any prior DUI-related convictions. If, however, the driver has suffered a prior DUI-related conviction, they will likely be charged with second degree murder under California’s “Watson Murder Rule.” Under Watson, the California Supreme allowed murder to be charged in a subsequent DUI resulting in death because the driver was made aware of the dangers of drunk driving after having been sentenced on the prior DUI. It is almost as if the court is saying, “We warned you, you did it anyways, and now look at what happened.”
Herrera had been convicted of a DUI in the past, which allowed prosecutors to charge murder. As a result, Herrera had been in jail since his arrest, unable to afford the $2 million bail bond.
Kirk McAllister, Herrera’s attorney, however, believed the allegations to be false and his law firm conducted its own investigation into the collision.
Following McAllister’s investigation, it was learned that the girls had, in fact, collided into Herrera, not the other way around. What’s more, Herrera did, in fact, jump into the water to help Vanessa’s cousin stay afloat.
McAllister’s findings directly contradicted an affidavit filed by the Sheriff’s department alleging that “two independent witnesses” said that Herrera was driving his boat in circles and did not render aid. The affidavit, however, failed to identify the witnesses, and the sheriff’s department has refused to answer questions about the accuracy of the affidavit.
“What our investigation showed was that in fact they ran into him. In boating terms, he had the right of way. They hit him on the port side, or the left side. … He did the right thing, he powered down (the boat),” said McAllister to the Modesto Bee. “He had a terrible choice to make: One girl was not moving, the other girl was flailing in the water. He chose the one who was flailing because she was showing signs of life, obviously. He kept her afloat until another boat came.”
McAllister’s findings were submitted to the Stanislaus County District Attorney, and last month, the prosecution dropped the felony DUI charges and murder charge. Michael Scheid, the prosecutor assigned to the case, filed an amended complaint against Herrera alleging only misdemeanor boating under the influence charges.
Although the result might not sit well with some readers, the law requires it.
As the District Attorney’s Office itself recognizes, “[i]t is not enough to prove that someone who drank alcohol and was piloting a boat got involved in a collision where someone died,” said John Goold, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office.
By law the prosecution must prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, and one element to the crime of second degree murder via DUI (or BUI) is that Herrera “did an act or neglected any duty imposed by law…which act or neglect proximately caused the bodily injury.” Based on McAllister’s investigation, Herrera simply did not.
“In this case, ongoing investigation led us to the inescapable conclusion that we could not prove all the elements beyond a reasonable doubt, which led to the filing of the amended complaint,” said Goold rightly so.
Following the amended complaint and dropping of charges, Herrera was released from custody on his own recognizance.
“I was in hell; that’s hell in there,” Herrera said following his release, recalling his time in jail awaiting prosecution. “Just thinking about my family. What was going to become of my kids and myself? Being in there for something that I didn’t do.”
Go ahead and ask Juan Francisco Moreno Herrera whether it’s a good idea to hire a criminal defense attorney when facing California DUI charges. In his case, it was the difference between a misdemeanor DUI and a murder.
Herrera still faces those misdemeanor DUI charges and expected in court this month.