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Driver gets 99 days in July 4 crash

Posted: November 10, 2011 1:30 a.m.
Updated: November 10, 2011 1:30 a.m.

SAN FERNANDO — After an emotional morning of tears and apology for having taken the life of Matilde Garnica with her car on Independence Day last year, Melissa Brown was handcuffed and led from Superior Court to begin serving 99 days in the county jail.

Brown, a 23-year-old journalism student from Canyon Country — who last month entered a plea of no contest in answer to manslaughter charges against her — arrived for sentencing Wednesday in high-heeled black shoes with bows, wearing a black fitted jacket and black knee-length skirt.

Called courageous by her lawyer for “stepping up” to accept responsibility, Brown was sentenced to 180 days in the Los Angeles County jail but was given credit for time served behind bars and under house arrest.

Matilde Garnica Juarez, a Newhall mother of three, was crushed during the July 4, 2010, city-sponsored fireworks show when the car Brown was driving collided with another vehicle and careened into the crowd at Valencia Boulevard and Mall Entrance Drive.

In handing down her sentence Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell said she could not ignore Brown’s history of bad driving, citing five prior convictions for speeding and failing to stop.

“You have a wonderful support group. You have accomplished a lot in your young life, and I’m sure you have a bright future ahead of you,” O’Connell told Brown, prefacing her sentence.

“What is incredibly troubling for me is your record of prior violations,” she said. “There must be some additive punishment.”

In addition to the 180-day sentence, Brown was also placed on three years’ probation and ordered to complete 80 hours of community service.

Specifically, Brown was ordered to speak to high school students about her case as part of her community service.
“This case is unusual and you have a lot to give students,” O’Connell said.

Lawyers unhappy
Lawyers for both the prosecution and defense were disappointed with the sentencing.

Deputy District Attorney Richard Quinones said outside the courtroom that he wanted Brown to serve at least one year in county jail.

Brown’s defense lawyer David S. Kestenbaum however, said his client demonstrated great character in standing up to be held accountable.

“I’m horrified by this sentencing,” he said outside the courtroom. “I had a young girl stand up and take responsibility. I think that should have gone a lot farther to keep her out of custody.”

As he spoke in the hallway of the courthouse, members of Brown’s family sobbed loudly nearby, some pacing, some holding each other.

Wednesday’s court proceeding was an opportunity for those affected by the crime — both relatives of the woman killed and those who gathered around the woman responsible — to tell the judge how their lives have changed since it happened.

At least 15 members of Garnica’s family sat on one side of the courtroom, while a dozen from the Brown family sat on the other with no one sitting between them.

Three armed deputies of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department positioned themselves by the courtroom door between the two groups as victim impact statements were presented.

Mother missed
First to speak was Garnica’s widowed husband, Ernesto.

Dressed in a plain black collared shirt and tan slacks, and speaking quietly and slowly through a Spanish interpreter, he said: “I miss my wife.

“She was a good mother to my children. I know it was an involuntary accident, but my life is totally changed.”
As he spoke, women in the Garnica group dabbed their eyes and one young man kept shaking his foot balanced on his knee, holding back tears.

The judge asked the widower about expenses incurred by the death of his wife.

He said his church, his family and friends had helped pay some expenses but that he still had bills, including one sent by the ambulance service that had been forwarded to a collection agency.

It cost him at least $5,000 to bury his wife in Mexico, he said.

None of the Garnica family said they wanted money or compensation, and none said they wanted Brown put in jail.

Each, including Garnica’s husband, left sentencing up to the judge. Each expressed only regret at losing the woman

described as the central figure in their family.

Garnica’s sister Ignacia Juarez, said: “From that day of the accident to this day, celebrations are no longer celebrations. They are just painful.”

At one point, a woman working with Brown’s defense team darted red-faced and crying from the courtroom.
Brown, listening to each personal testimonial, sat crying with her shoulders shaking.

Her lawyer on a couple of occasions placed a comforting hand on her back as she shook.

Garnica’s eldest son, Peter Martinez, who is in his 20s, works and tries to study for school, told the court how he was forced to assume the role of mother caring for his younger siblings.

“It’s very difficult for me. I feel like I adopted two teenage sons,” he said. “Life is different for us not to have a happy home where you find your mother at home cooking.

“I walk down the hall and see her picture on the wall and think of all the things she used to do for us.”
Two younger sons injured in the Fourth of July crash, including one who spent more than a month in the hospital with a fractured skull, were invited by the prosecutor to testify but declined.

“If she were here, I don’t think she would want (Brown) to go to jail,” family member Cecilia Galicia said of the victim.
When the Garnica family sat quietly with no one left willing to approach the podium, it was Brown’s turn to speak.

Brown apology

Shortly before noon, Brown stood up and turned to face the Garnica family.
Shaking and crying and with a voice that blurted out suddenly loud, she said: “I can’t tell you how sorry I am from the bottom of my heart.

“If there is anything I could do to bring back your mom, I would,” she said as a courtroom full of crying spectators looked on.

“I just can’t imagine the pain I caused you,” she said. “It is a pain I think about every day and every second of my life.
“I am really, really sorry,” Brown said, sobbing.

Brown was at the wheel of her car on the night of July 4, 2010, when it collided with another vehicle on Valencia Boulevard at Mall Entrance.

Valencia was lined with spectators watching the finale of the city-sponsored fireworks show, and Brown’s vehicle careened into the crowd, crushing to death Matilde Garnica Juarez, a Newhall mother of three.

Shortly before the lunch break, court heard from the first law enforcement officer to arrive on the scene of the crash.
Deputy James Mee, of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, told court: “This was an accident that was just waiting to happen.”

Garnica’s family has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city of Santa Clarita, the company that owns Westfield Valencia Town Center, and other agencies.


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