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July 4 driver to face trial

Woman who allegedly ran red light in deadly 2010 crash will face vehicular manslaughter charge

Posted: August 17, 2011 1:30 a.m.
Updated: August 17, 2011 1:30 a.m.

SAN FERNANDO — A young woman was ordered Tuesday to stand trial for vehicular manslaughter in the death of a Newhall mother of three, who was crushed by a car during the 2010 Independence Day fireworks celebration.

Melissa Brigette Brown, a petite 23-year-old college student with long straight hair, was bound over for trial on the felony charge following a preliminary hearing.

Testimony during the hearing showed Brown had been cited four times between 2007 and 2009 for speeding or for failing to stop at a stop sign or a red light.

After hearing from five prosecution witnesses, San Fernando Superior Court Judge Dalila C. Lyons looked down from the bench at Brown and ordered her to stand trial for vehicular manslaughter in the death of Matilde Garnica Juarez.

At the close of her hearing, Brown broke down in tears.

Wearing a white sleeveless knit top and knee-length dark-colored skirt, Brown walked swiftly out of the courtroom, passed family members in attendance and entered the hallway, sobbing loudly.

On July 4, 2010, Garnica was crushed by a car driven by Brown, which was propelled into a crowd of fireworks spectators at the corner of Valencia Boulevard and Mall Entrance Road. Brown’s vehicle allegedly ran a red light before it collided with an SUV.

Traffic history
One of the witnesses called by Deputy District Attorney Richard Quinones on Tuesday was traffic investigator Detective Jeff Maag of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station.

Maag was asked to comment on what Quinones called “an extensive traffic criminal history in a very short period of time.”

Testimony about Brown’s prior traffic citations included:

- On Aug. 17, 2007, she received a speeding ticket on Soledad Canyon Road that alleged she was driving 57 mph in a 45 mph zone.

- On Nov. 28, 2008, sheriff’s deputies cited Brown for allegedly failing to stop at a stop sign.

- On Jan. 11, 2009, she received another speeding ticket for allegedly driving 65 mph in a 50 zone.

- On Dec. 12, 2009, she was issued a ticket for having failed to stop at a red light a few of blocks from where the Fourth of July fatality occurred in 2010.

Quinones asked Maag to share details of Brown’s 2009 ticket.

The 2009 citation alleges sheriff’s deputies followed Brown from the intersection of Magic Mountain Parkway and Valencia Boulevard over to Kohl’s Department Store, where she reportedly worked.

“She indicated she was just going to work,” Maag said. “Then she started crying and told (the deputy) how he caused her to be late for work.”

Maag said a routine inspection of Brown’s cellphone following the Fourth of July crash revealed a photograph of a Department of Motor Vehicles warning.

“It was a warning that her driving privileges may be suspended and that her driving actions may cause an injury,” Maag said, quoting the DMV bulletin.

The phone was examined in an effort to determine whether Brown had been texting or talking on her cell phone at the time of the fatal crash.

There was no evidence that she was using her phone at that time, Maag said.

Video footage
Prosecutors opened their preliminary hearing case with video footage of the car slamming into the crowd watching the Independence Day fireworks.

Quinones introduced into evidence a home video shot by John Lurie taken July 4, 2010, as he stood with his family on Valencia Boulevard near Islands Restaurant facing the Westfield Valencia Town Center Mall.

“I heard a horn. I heard a collision and tires screeching,” Lurie told the court. “I saw a car out of control coming toward
me. I heard the crash of the car against people.”

The court also heard from Joseph Anderson, a young man who said he was in the back seat of a white Dodge Durango SUV that was on Valencia Boulevard in front of Islands Restaurant at the corner of the crash site.

Anderson was asked to comment on the crash video, which showed the Durango colliding with the white sedan prosecutors say was driven by Brown.

“I realized they (the sedan driver) weren’t going to stop and so I yelled,” Anderson said.

Spectators inside the courtroom watched an overhead projection of the videotaped crash played at least three times. It showed the sedan and the Durango colliding at Mall Entrance Road and the sedan moving sideways across Valencia Boulevard into a crowd of people gathered in front of Islands Restaurant on the south side of Valencia.

‘Things went flying’
Brown’s lawyer David S. Kestenbaum asked each of the prosecution’s witnesses if they noticed sheriff’s deputies directing traffic or traffic signs advising them of traffic at the special event. All answered no.

Kestenbaum, in questioning witnesses about the collision between his client’s car and the Durango, made the point that the car would have proceeded straight through the intersection had it not made contact with the other vehicle.

Rachel Chavez told the court she was with her husband and children in front of Islands Restaurant when she saw the sedan “out of control.”

“The Dodge hit the sedan and sent it fishtailing and then the rear end of the car struck the pole,” she said. “It was like a hand hitting water — chairs, people, cups and things went flying.”

She said “five or six guys” pulled the car off the light standard where it had come to rest and pushed it to the middle of the street.

Garnica was killed instantly. At least two of her three sons were injured in the collision.

Rejected motions
An analysis of Brown’s blood taken following the Fourth of July crash revealed trace amounts of the pharmaceutical painkiller Vicodin and 17 nanograms of THC, the drug component of marijuana.

The amounts were so miniscule the prosecution told court he will not be presenting any evidence about Brown’s blood content.

Kestenbaum asked the judge to dismiss the charge against his client for insufficiency of evidence.

He also asked the judge to reduce the vehicular manslaughter charge from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Both motions were rejected.

Brown is scheduled to appear in court Aug. 30.




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