Sunday Commentary: DA Leaps From Epileptic Seizure to Murder Charges and Life Sentence

hit-and-run

On Friday, a Yolo County Jury convicted Armando Gonzalez, 41, of second degree murder. His crime was driving a car, having an epileptic seizure, and crashing his vehicle into an 85-year-old woman’s car which resulted in her death.

This is a tough case and, of course, a very tragic case. But with the conviction, Mr. Gonzalez now faces potentially a life sentence of 19 years to life. The district attorney trying this case acknowledged that this was only the second murder conviction they know of where a medical condition has become the basis for a second-degree murder charge.

The DA has a good case for gross vehicular manslaughter in this case – which the jury also convicted Mr. Gonzalez of. Mr. Gonzalez’s grossly negligent conduct caused the death of another person. As the court notes, “Gross negligence involves more than ordinary carelessness, inattention, or mistake in judgment.”

The person acts “in a reckless way that creates a high risk of death or great bodily injury” and “a reasonable person would have known that acting in that way would create such a risk.” The instructions to the jury continue, “In other words, a person acts with gross negligence when the way he or she acts is so different from how an ordinarily careful person would act in the same situation that his or her act amounts to disregard for human life or indifference to the consequences of that act.”

Mr. Gonzalez had a history of four previous accidents in 2002, 2004, 2010 and 2011. In one of those accidents, in 2004, Mr. Gonzalez lost consciousness and hit a cement wall, shattering both of his legs. The defendant had to be life-flighted to a hospital where pins were inserted into his legs and surgery was required on his brain.

On the morning of February 1, 2014, Mr. Gonzalez informed his boss that he was not feeling well after experiencing two absence seizures, brief and sudden lapses of consciousness. His boss excused him from work and he proceeded to get into his car and drive home, despite his condition at the time.

The prosecution also alleged and the jury convicted Mr. Gonzalez of lying to the DMV and his doctors about the frequency of his seizures so that he would not lose his driver’s license.

Ms. Zambor argued that this indicated that Mr. Gonzalez was fully aware that, if he told the truth, he would be considered too dangerous to drive. He also neglected to tell his neurologists about his prior collisions. Therefore, the neurologists and the DMV did not have full information and could not accurately determine whether Mr. Gonzalez was safe to operate a vehicle.

This was a slam dunk case for gross negligence – Mr. Gonzalez knew he had seizures, he knew he was a risk to get into an accident, and he knew he wasn’t feeling well after suffering two absence seizures earlier in the day. He should not have been driving.

An ordinary person should have and would have known that they were a risk to have another seizure and therefore a risk to get into an accident.

In his defense, Mr. Jimenez further argued that Mr. Gonzalez had driven on many occasions where no accident occurred and that his client had stressors present on a regular basis.

This isn’t like a drunk driving case. In a drunk driving case, the individual who drinks is willingly taking a drug that impairs their judgment. So, having impaired judgment is not an excuse for jumping in a car while drunk and causing a fatal accident. However in this case, we do not really know to what extend Mr. Gonzalez was impaired.

While Mr. Gonzalez was able to hire private counsel, he didn’t bring in expert witnesses who could bolster his case. There was no doctor or neurologist. They didn’t bring in an expert on epilepsy who would have been able to bolster Mr. Jimenez’ arguments. This is a flaw in the system, because Mr. Gonzalez who sat in the courtroom with an interpreter translating the proceedings for him, was likely unable to afford expert witnesses that could run in the tens of thousands of dollars.

The biggest question we have in this case is how you get from an accident caused by an epileptic seizure to implied malice. Second-degree murder is defined “as an intentional killing that was not premeditated.”

Under California law the prosecutor has to show the conduct reflects an “abandoned and malignant heart.” “Implied malice may arise if the defendant meant to create the circumstances that resulted in the killing of another person. When a criminal case lacks malice, the prosecutor will likely need to pursue manslaughter charges instead of murder charges.”

Given how rare such a charge admittedly is – I think second degree murder is a huge stretch here. There is no intentionality. Whereas the prosecution is trying to argue that Mr. Gonzalez’s actions are so extreme they imply malice here. in fact, they just seem grossly negligent ‒ especially when compounded with the potential impaired judgment from the previous seizures.

A life sentence, even if he would likely be paroled at some point, seems rather extreme in this case. We have a tragic accident, very questionable judgment, but all of that adds up to gross negligence, not intentional murder.

Life in prison for this poor and tragic judgment seems a stretch. A prison sentence commensurate with gross vehicular homicide, along with a lifelong ban on driving, seems more in order.

In no way does this analysis minimize the tragic loss of life here. This seems like yet another case where Mr. Gonzalez needs to understand the gravity of his actions and the harm he has caused. A restorative justice approach might allow him to do that.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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23 Comments

  1. Biddlin

    “This seems like yet another case where Mr. Gonzalez needs to understand the gravity of his actions and the harm he has caused. A restorative justice approach might be allow him to do that.”

    And how would that be applicable (or restorative)to his victim’s family and loved ones?  And how disrespectful to the thousands of seizure disorder victims who live with the disease and follow the law. I have a loved one with epilepsy. He is a conscientious and sweet soul who could easily fool the DMV and doctors into certifying him, but does not do so, out of a sense of honour and decency.

    Mr Gonzales operated motor vehicles negligently on at least five occasions. It seems reasonable to assume malice after the first.

    ;>)/

     

    1. Aisuhime86

      I personally have epilepsy I have had for 14years. Malice was not what Mr.Gonzalas had on his mind. If he did have two previous seizures that I promise you it wasn’t, all wants to do is go to bed because he feels like crud and coherency is limited. He wasn’t incoherent by choice it’s a medical condition. He didn’t drink alcohol or partake in illegal drugs. His perjury was alleged meaning no proof he did and DMV would have it on record of previous accidents and state of California they reserve the right to deny you a license If you have condition that caused you to lose consciousness when go to apply for one or to get it reinstated  and they chose to give him his license.

       

       

  2. PhilColeman

    “Given how rare such a charge admittedly is – I think second degree murder is a huge stretch here.”

    In support of the contention that this convicted defendant was “overcharged” with a 2nd Degree Murder finding, the analogy was made to a drunk driving case. Here, a person deliberately consumes alcohol knowing that later driving a vehicle puts all drivers in his path at risk. That is implied malice and reckless disregard. The analogy continues by saying that the defendant’s circumstance differs, he has a medical condition was not sought or self-induced. You can’t assign implied malice arising out of a medical impairment. In that limited context, sounds good.

    You will note that this and previous case summaries never made mention of this argument being offered in court. Good thing. It would have been torpedoed in court and about to be torpedoed here. Fire one!

    The implied malice legal standard was met when the defendant deliberately and deceitfully falsified and concealed his driving history to an examining physician and the DMV. That legal standard of implied malice at that moment was argued to the satisfaction of a jury and the man was convicted of all charges. It’s been done here before, but saying a DA, a jury, and a sitting judge in an oversight role, are all wrong indicts the entire system of justice in Yolo County. If that is even remotely accurate, send this case to the appellate courts.

    The predicted sentencing of the defendant is embellishment to fortify the claim of injustice made in this case. He will not spend the rest of his life in prison.

    Perhaps the biggest “stretch” found in this discussion is the final paragraph, where the all purpose fix-it of “Restorative Justice” is offered as the best solution to meet the need of the defendant and society. Restorative Justice means in this case that the defendant would not in remain in custody, and most importantly, has access again to an automobile.

    How many of you restorative justice advocates are comfortable with the notion that this process is the best solution for this man to cease driving on a public road? Consider the fact, he’d already had four reported vehicle accidents–two were serious life-endangerment accidents–and yet the man continued drive. With this history, I’d not be particularly surprised to see this person arrive at his scheduled restorative justice session at the wheel of an automobile.

     

     

    1. Miwok

      With this history, I’d not be particularly surprised to see this person arrive at his scheduled restorative justice session at the wheel of an automobile.

      PhilColeman, this is why this person needs some jail time. He has a track record of ignoring or evading the rules for so long, this is ludicrous to think he would be interested in Restorative Justice.

      Mr Gonzalez had arguably kept several body shops in business through the years, and how many unreported accidents has he had?

      I suppose Mr Greenwald would prefer Mr Gonzalez apologize, through his interpreter of course, when this seems to be the only way to get Mr Gonzalez in jail and off the street?

      I worked at the Sacramento DA when an acquaintance was killed by a habitual drunk who killed her and his best friend. He said he was sorry… He was charged with Murder..

      1. David Greenwald

        “I suppose Mr Greenwald would prefer Mr Gonzalez apologize, through his interpreter of course, when this seems to be the only way to get Mr Gonzalez in jail and off the street?”

        That ignores what what I said which is that the gross vehicular manslaughter charge is the clear charge, that comes with a six year sentence potentially and I would combine that with a driving ban and restorative justice approach which btw, is not about “apologizing”

  3. hpierce

    Had Mr Gonzalez’ attorney, prior to trial, offered a “guilty” plea to charges of gross negligence, voluntary manslaughter, and offer of financial restoration to the victims and to the City of Davis (loss of streetlight, damage to landscaping, etc.) , with the proviso of a voluntary, irrevocable offer of permanent loss of driving priveleges/rights, THEN I’d agree with the thrust of the above article.  It appears that offer was not made by defense counsel.

    1. Davis Progressive

      i wouldn’t assume that an offer wasn’t made, although usually it is the prosecution that makes the offers, not the defense.   the gross vehicular homicide charge would have resulted in about a six year sentence in prison, btw, it would not have been a get out of jail free.

      1. hpierce

        “the gross vehicular homicide charge would have resulted in about a six year sentence in prison, btw, it would not have been a get out of jail free.” yeah, knew that… assume the 6 yrs is max, not min, if one does one’s best to show remorse and/or desire to change.

        My parents taught me ’tis better to ‘fess up, take the discipline, and learn from the experience.  If I f’d up, I’d instruct my counsel to “deal”.  But that’s just me.

         

      2. hpierce

        Thinking about your response more… an ‘indictment’, if you will, of the legal system… if I f’d up, and the prosecution offered me a plea bargain, I’d wonder if they really thought they could prove their case… I think I’d try to negotiate DOWN from there.  I think that for the defense to offer a “no contest”/”guilty” plea would be a good faith measure, and would save a lot of time/money.  But, that’s probably why I’m not in the legal field.  Shakespeare’s character had it right about first things to do…

  4. Tia Will

    How many of you restorative justice advocates are comfortable with the notion that this process is the best solution for this man to cease driving on a public road? Consider the fact, he’d already had four reported vehicle accidents–two were serious life-endangerment accidents–and yet the man continued drive. With this history, I’d not be particularly surprised to see this person arrive at his scheduled restorative justice session at the wheel of an automobile.”

    I find myself very torn about this case. While I agree with Phil that “malice” is demonstrated by the deliberate lying and the repetitive nature of the events, I can’t help but wonder what we are attempting to achieve with a murder charge and prolonged incarceration.

    1. Public safety – surely what would be in the best public interest would be to have Mr. Gonzalez permanently barred from driving. It would seem that the least expensive way to make this happen would be in the public interest ? I would ask Phil if there might not be a better, less expensive way to ensure that this happens. Has the over all cost to society of incarceration, the cost to Mr. Gonzalez dependents and the loss of his productivity to the community being taken into account ? Would a house arrest not serve the same purpose without the financial and social costs ?

    2. Restoration – I think that we can all agree that there is nothing that can come even close to restoration of a life for the victim’s family. However, I think it is too simplistic to assume that all grieving families would want prolonged incarceration to the be outcome. Speaking only for myself, a permanent ban on driving would be what I would call for were this my 85 year old mother. Not all family members seek punishment or vengeance and we should not presume to speak for this family.

    3. Deterrence – Yes, being incarcerated will prevent him from driving for the duration of his sentence. Again, I can foresee less expensive and disruptive means of achieving this end. How about deference of others ? Will incarcerating this one individual for a long time have a significant impact on the rate of epileptics driving while their seizure activity is not fully controlled ?  I would suspect that most epileptics will never even hear of Mr. Gonzalez case, let alone be deterred by this sentencing.

    4. Punishment – now I think that this is the true heart of the matter. We as a society are very vengeance driven. If something bad has occurred, our prevailing tendency is to want to identify whom to blame, vilify them, and then determine how to punish them. We do not tend to look for systems approaches, or preventative measures, or options that might have less “collateral damage” such as will be the case with the Gonzalez family who will be losing the contribution of an employed adult. Will the incarceration of Mr. Gonzalez be more or less likely to result in the future incarceration of any of his dependents ?  What effect will it have on the educational level achieved by any of his dependents ?  I don’t pretend to know the answers, but I do find it appalling that there seems to be no consideration at all that this legal outcome may result in harm to two groups of innocents instead of just the family of the victim.

    Would that “first do not harm” was not a tenet of our legal system as well as in medicine.

     

  5. Adrian Arias Gonzalez

    I won’t come out and start an argument on here, but I do feel there was so much that wasn’t discussed in this case.

    I am Adrian, Brother of Armando.

    Armando has suffered from Epilepsy almost his entire life.  Since he was 3 years old he contracted meningitis. Armando has suffered numerous seizures growing up, most of them absence seizures, a few grand mals, but those were after his accident in 2004.

    We couldn’t afford to get any specialists in to help us with Armando’s case.  Expert testimony was quoted in the hundreds of thousands, and unfortunately we don’t have that kind of money.  Many things were omitted and left out of the case. For instance, his doctor, being a mandated reporter, declining to report any issues to the DMV.  His doctor clearly felt he wasn’t a risk, which I won’t argue with nor against. This information was brought up in the preliminary hearing, he was asked point blank if he was a mandated reporter and why had he neglected to report any changes.  His response was as simple as him not seeing him as a threat.

    Many people will think I am biased on my brother’s behalf, and to a point I can see that being true. But Armando wasn’t a criminal. He had a clean record before this date.  He was never offered any plea deals. Every accident that he had was reported to the DMV by both police officers and his doctor.  His doctor was well aware of his previous accidents as I had gone with him on at least one occasion where we had discussed his epilepsy and his continued effort to achieve his driver’s license.  Why he claimed he wasn’t aware of his previous accidents, I can only speculate.  As for the Perjury charges, I agree Armando was in the wrong to fill those out incorrectly.  In the grand scheme of things, the forms were nothing more than bureaucracy, because had he filled out “yes” the DMV would have simply required a doctor’s diagnosis and approval, which he had at every step of the way.  The prosecution claims he didn’t inform his doctor of all his issues, when he did. Armando was and is the type of person to inform his doctor of all changes. It is clear in the court proceedings how much of an issue running out of medication was to him. He was strict on his medication.  Currently in Yolo County Jail, he has been neglected on that front, missing doses and not getting adequate dosages and inconsistent times.  Stress wasn’t as big of a factor to his seizures as they were played out to be.  The most STRESSFUL situation of his life, his LIFE on the line here, sitting in court, how many seizures did he have?  NONE.

    Many people want to argue that he knew everything that was going on and was asking for a spanish translator as a ruse. That was no ruse.  Armando does speak fluent English and can read it. He graduated high school in Arbuckle, CA.  Armando has a hard time understanding things in English at times and when offered an interpreter, he chose to take it to better understand things.  His brain is not wired like the rest of us. He has trouble understanding things like normal people.  His crime is trying to be normal like the rest of the population without epilepsy and it is sad that he was convicted of a murder charge, when it was clear a manslaughter charge was clear. I could go on for days as to what information was omitted, but in the end, we cannot do much anymore. Armando was a week away from having his first born son on the day of the collision.  Now he may never see his child grow up.  This isn’t rehabilitation, it is punishment for taking a life.  His wife and child will go on without him around.  People want to vilify him and there isn’t much we can do with that. Armando NEVER drove unless he had that driver’s license, and at any point if his license was revoked, he would never drive again. The fact that he kept seeking the license and was granted is a major part of the trial we couldn’t get in to the testimony.  DMV omitted records and the DA actually had to sue the DMV to get the subpoenaed documents. What was DMV hiding? The DMV was fully aware of all the accidents and the medical condition my brother had, and they still gave him the license.  Am I trying to pass off the blame to the Doctor and DMV? No.  I am not.  But it goes to show that there was more than meets the eye in this case.  All information should be public record if people don’t believe me. The trial was delayed various times due to all the medical records and DMV records that weren’t being provided to the D.A.  The judge even gave a stern talking to the D.A. back in late 2014 saying to get their shit together or dismiss. The fact that it only took 3 hours to deliberate tells us that the jury had already made up their mind from the start.  The fact the D.A. kept showing hundreds of pictures of the same accident scene only shows that the justice system is out to get sympathy/Anger from the jurors.  I have sat through numerous other trials, and have never seen a D.A. so close to a family of a victim like it was in this case.  They wanted revenge and they got it.  If people wish to reply to this message, feel free, but I am not going to continue any discussion as I have many things to work through including working to move on and support Armando from here on out.

    1. hpierce

      Will keep Armando and your family in my thoughts and prayers.  I pray also that unless his condition fully resolves, he will not operate a motor vehicle again.

    2. tribeUSA

      Mr. Gonzalez–yes, it does seem to me that a manslaughter charge would have been more appropriate. Sounds like your brother was not a criminal, and had no bad intent.

  6. Frankly

    One of my top sales people had a seizure in a hotel at night after a business event.  Never had one before.   Has never had another one since. Went to the doctor and the license was gone while the tests were done to make sure it wasn’t chronic.  This impacted the income of my sales person and of the company.  I made it clear that there was going to be absolutely no driving for anything related to company business (and any other driving for that matter) until the medical decision was made to clear the case… or else the employee would be terminated immediately.  It took over a year.  Without the all-clear the employee would have had to go on long-term and maybe permanent disability and be retrained for a job that did not require driving.

    It is very unfortunate to have this condition, but there is no excuse for driving with it unless cleared by doctors.  Other people on the road deserve the assurance that they are going to be safe from drivers  having seizures.

  7. darelldd

    This seems like a nit-pick, especially when the subject is so grave. Yet the words we choose to describe the activities involved in a case, DO make a difference. In both the article and the comments, we hear about “accidents.”

    Mr. Gonzalez had a history of four previous accidents in 2002, 2004, 2010 and 2011. In one of those accidents, in 2004,…

    Objectively, these are collisions. These are crashes. The driver of the car hit somebody with his car. Subjectively, I suppose these could be accidental collisions and crashes. But… why do we continue to call everything bad that happens while driving an “accident?” Calling all automotive collisions traffic accidents implies – at least subtly – that these collisions are unavoidable. That they are acts of god. That gosh… the driver didn’t mean to hit anybody else. It was an accident – as any 4-year-old will tell you. Why do we insist on being so non-descriptive?

    If I forget to roll up my window when it rains, did I just have an accident? If I bonk my head on the roof of my car when I enter the vehicle, did I just have an accident? If I try to operate my turn signal, and find that my wipers are going instead – did I just have an accident? I guess not. But if I hit something with my car, then I’ve apparently had an accident.

    I have no idea how the word accident became synonymous with traffic collision. I only know that it shouldn’t be that hard to correct it.

    1. hpierce

      Darrell… I’ve fought the battle for years (like 30) to distinguish between “collisions”, ‘crashes” and “accidents”.  ‘Collisions’ and ‘crashes’ are facts.  ‘Accidents’ are judgements. Driving (or walking, or operating a bicycle) with a 0.20 BAC, driving when dementia is a serious issue, etc., resulting in a ‘collision’/’crash’, is in my mind, no “accident”.  Please continue making the distinction.  I believe we need to.

      1. darelldd

        Thanks for the support, hpierce. I wasn’t sure how it would be taken. In general, it seems that folks just don’t care about proper word choice in this case.

        Even if we were not claiming that “accident” is a subjective judgement, at best the word is totally non-descriptive of the event. So why the heck do we insist on using it? Do we require a euphemism here? I can see the desire for the euphemism when a puppy has a stinky accident on the carpet. But who’s sensibilities are harmed if we objectively describe the event with “crash” and “collision?”

  8. Napoleon Pig IV

    Frankly, thank you for your good sense and moral actions despite the economic harm it caused to your business.

    As for this particular case, I’m comfortable relying on the jury to make the decision. These decisions are not at all easy, and they take a lot more serious consideration of all the circumstances than it might seem when reacting superficially to the outcome of the trial.

  9. Tia Will

    darelidd

    This seems like a nit-pick, especially when the subject is so grave. Yet the words we choose to describe the activities involved in a case, DO make a difference. In both the article and the comments, we hear about “accidents.”

    As a general principle, I agree with the importance of precision in speech and I completely agree that the words chosen can have an impact on our perception of events that we ourselves have not witnessed. However, your capitalization of the word “DO” leads me to believe that you feel that there might have been real world consequences of the use of the word “accident” instead of “collision” in this particular case. I am not sure what you see as the distorting influence of that word “accident” in this case. Can you clarify ?

    1. hpierce

      Since Darrell and I actually agree pretty much on this, I’ll jump in and he can elaborate.  “Accident” generally means something that could not be reasonably foreseen nor avoided.  Would you consider someone getting behind the wheel, (or scalpel), with a BAC of 0.2, and f’ing things up an, “accident”?  In the case in point, there were not one, but multiple “accidents” (the word you seem attracted to), by the same individual for the same proximate cause. Do you recall the definition of ‘insanity’?  Doing something the same way many times and expecting different results? Would you portray that as a “accident”?  or something else…

      [‘Impaired’ is impaired, whether due to alcohol, drugs, anti-histimines, sleep deprivation, distractions, etc.]

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