Judge Declines to Dismiss Charges in Vehicle Pursuit Turned Murder Case

Judge Dan Maguire left murder charges in place on Friday against Trevor James Wright, stemming from a March 2, 2017, vehicle accident in which the sheriff’s department attempted to arrest 16-year-old Matthew Gonzales on several arrest warrants.  Mr. Wright fled the scene but quickly ended up crashing the vehicle and Mr. Gonzales lost his life.

This case drew attention when Mr. Gonzales’ mother asked prosecutors to drop the murder charges against Mr. Wright and, following a preliminary hearing, the defense, represented by Deputy Public Defender Joseph Gocke, argued for dismissal based on insufficient evidence to establish probable cause that Mr. Wright committed murder.

Judge Dan Maguire, while perhaps questioning whether there would be sufficient evidence to prove the murder charges beyond a reasonable doubt in a jury trial, nevertheless found that the probable cause standard for a holding order was sufficient.

According to the facts adduced during the preliminary hearing, Yolo County Sheriff’s Deputy Dana Simpson attempted to arrest Matthew Gonzales on several arrest warrants.  At 3:50 pm, Deputy Simpson observed a white Mitsubishi approach Mr. Gonzales’ residence, which made a U-turn before coming to a stop.

A few seconds after first observing the white Mitsubishi, Deputy Simpson then observed Matthew Gonzales and 17-year-old Isaiah Muñoz. Muñoz walked out of the residence and got into the vehicle.  A marked patrol car driven by Woodland Police Officer Zachary Ryno pursued the vehicle as it took off.

With officers in pursuit, the vehicle reached high rates of speed as it turned onto Woodland Avenue from southbound West Street.  Officer Ryno lost ground even as he was going at least 60 mph on residential streets.

The total pursuit was just over a mile and, given the speed, Officer Ryno “described this as a short pursuit.”

Shortly before the crash, near the intersection of College and Woodland avenues, “a civilian observed the right front passenger of the white Mitsubishi (later identified to be Isaiah Muñoz) throw what she later observed to be a gun from the right front passenger side window.”

Mr. Wright told law enforcement “that he was unsure as to whether or not Mr. Muñoz had a gun on him” and that he “had no idea that there was a gun in the white Mitsubushi.”

At the scene of the crash, Mr. Wright took off running, Isaiah Muoñz was in the front passenger seat and Matthew Gonzales was in the rear.  “At the scene of the crash, Officer Ryno witnessed Matthew Gonzales go in and out of consciousness prior to being taken away from the scene by American Medical Response.”

Mr. Wright would be taken into custody, Mr. Muñoz “had life threatening injuries” including a shattered pelvis, and Mr. Gonzales died as the result of his injuries while being treated at the hospital.

During arguments, Mr. Gocke argued that current research suggests that 18 year olds lack the degree of “risk appreciation” that older adults have.  He said that the law is still catching up to research in this regard.

He noted that Officer Ryno did not consider this a murder investigation at the time.

Under California law, a person whose reckless driving kills another can be charged with second degree murder “if there is sufficient evidence of implied malice.” Implied malice, the Supreme Court back in 1981 explained, can be shown “when a person, knowing that his conduct endangers the life of another, nonetheless acts deliberately with conscious disregard for life.”

During his oral arguments, Mr. Gocke noted that, when learning that his friend had died, Mr. Wright banged his head on the interview room table and became immediately inconsolable.

Mr. Gocke argued that you have to look at the appreciation of risk and the lack of maturity level here.  He said they are basically trying to “bootstrap an evasion causing death” into “a murder charge that isn’t there.”

He argued in his written motion that “the prosecution did not present any evidence demonstrating that the 18-year-old defendant, Mr. Wright, subjectively appreciated the risk involved in the driving conduct in this case.”

Mr. Gocke also attacked the gang enhancements.  In his written motion he notes, “In order to sustain the gang enhancement allegation, the prosecution must prove that Mr. Wright’s act of second degree murder as alleged must have been done for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with the alleged victim, Matthew Gonzales.”

Here he argues that the prosecution must engage in an illogical argument in that the conduct occurred in association with gang members, but at the same time, the associated gang members were also the victims of his crime.

He writes that “the same group that Mr. Gonzales belonged to must have benefited from Mr. Gonzalez’s death, must have directed (implicitly or explicitly) that Mr. Wright engage in conduct that would lead to Mr. Gonzales’ death, or that the alleged victim associated in conduct that led to his own death.”

He argues that “the nexus between how the alleged felony… and how that felony benefited the gang is too tenuous for a person of ordinary prudence to rationally conclude that the killing of a fellow gang member benefited the same gang.”

The prosecution, Deputy DA Larry Eichele, counters in written argument that “the People rely on implied malice” defined in PC 188 as “when no considerable provocation appears, or when the circumstances attending the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.”

Here he argues, “Defendant drove his vehicle at a high rate of speed, in the middle of the day, through multiple stop signs, in a congested residential area next to a school. A reasonable person would conclude, the person who does such things to have an abandoned and malignant heart. Look at what happened.”

In his brief oral response, Mr. Eichele argued that the law does not obviate people of crimes at age 18.  He also noted that the emotional outburst does not have any bearing on his conduct.  He noted that Mr. Wright also left the scene of the accident and took officers on a vehicle pursuit.

With regard to the gang enhancement, he concedes that the defense “puts forth a reasonable argument regarding why the gang enhancement should not apply to Count 1. It’s hard to imagine how causing the death of a fellow gang member benefits the gang.”

However, he focuses on “in association with any criminal street gang.”

Judge Maguire held Mr. Wright to answer on all but Count 6, which referred to a sealed juvenile record that could be reinstituted should that record be opened.

He noted that there is sufficient circumstantial evidence in this case that the prosecution could prevail on a second degree murder charge – he noted the conduct and the high speed pursuit, but allowed that whether they could get proof beyond a reasonable doubt is “another question.”

With regard to the gang charges, Judge Maguire noted that there was no question that the result does not benefit the gang, but he said the crime might have.

This follows the reasoning from the prosecution, which argued in written motions: “The defense is trying to persuade this court that the gang enhancement only applies to the injury inflicted in these counts, not the precedent crime itself. The correct way to apply the law in this situation is to look at the substantive offense.”

On that basis, Judge Maguire denied the defense motion.

Mr. Wright will now face a trial on 8 of the 9 counts, including the murder charge and gang enhancements that would put him away for a life sentence.  The next hearing will be in July where he will be arraigned on the information and where a trial date will likely be set.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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  1. Jim Hoch

    So why would the use the more narrow reckless driving to justify a 2nd degree murder charge when it seems they could have gone for the more broad principle that committing a crime that carries a “substantial risk” that someone will killed is also 2nd degree murder?

    It would seem to me that a high speed chase would carry that “substantial risk” and therefore who got killed is somewhat irrelevant. It could have been someone in another car or a bicyclist/pedestrian just as easily.

    1. David Greenwald

      To get murder you have to get to malice or implied malice.  In this case, they have to argue for implied malice (defined in the article).

  2. Tia Will

    A reasonable person would conclude, the person who does such things to have an abandoned and malignant heart. Look at what happened.”

    I think that it is entirely unreasonable to conclude an “abandoned and malignant heart” based on “look what happened”. This reasoning smacks of the Monday morning quarterbacking that the public is frequently accused of by members of the judicial system. I think it quite unreasonable to assume that in the moment of desire to escape, this individual had any awareness at all of the range of possible outcomes and danger to those in his vehicle. I suspect he was in full flight or fight mode and was seeing the situation in terms of only two possibilities, escape or capture. That does not make him guilt free, but I certainly believe that it argues against an “abandoned/malignant heart”.

    1. David Greenwald

      It’s worth noting that they weren’t able to get Stephen Hendrix on Second Degree Murder charges and his conduct seems far worse – 84 mph on Cantrell/ Second St, under the influence, etc.  The jury in that case convicted him of vehicular homicide with enhancements, but hung 11-1 for acquittal on the murder charge.

      1. Jim Hoch

        I think David you are not right about this. Marjorie Knoller was convicted of second degree for the diane whipple dog case and she was not otherwise committing a crime. Stephen Hendrix should have been convicted IMO but he was only committing an infraction.

        This guy was running from the cops, possession of a gun, and the gang enhancements will be be much more likely to get a reasonable person, i.e. not you, to convict.

        The defense arguments sounded very weak.

        1. David Greenwald

          The Knoller case had the same standard:

          “In 2007, the California Supreme Court said Knoller could be convicted of that crime under state law if she acted in conscious disregard for human life. In its 2010 decision, the state Court of Appeal said that standard was met. The state court said Knoller “knew that her conduct was dangerous to human life” when she took untrained, aggressive and uncontrollable dogs out in public without a muzzle. ”

          They are using the implied malice standard here.

          “but he was only committing an infraction.”

          Driving at 84 in a 45 while intoxicated is a felony not an infraction.

      2. Jim Hoch

        This seems to be on point. Certainly initiating a high speed chase would be considered highly dangerous to people in the surrounding area even to someone 18. If one gang member is helping another gang member avoid arrest by an illegal act then the gang enhancement seems reasonable.

        “According to People v. Phillips, (1966) 64 Cal.2d 574, 587, second degree murder based on implied malice has been committed when a person does “an act, the natural consequences of which are dangerous to life, which act was deliberately performed by a person who knows that his conduct endangers the life of another and who acts with conscious disregard for life.”

        1. Howard P

          Having seen the results of many HSC in the bay area… if police have the vehicle identity, and any indication of occupants/crimes, there is little excuse for police to engage in a HSC… there are some exceptions, but given collateral damage to innocents, their property, injuries/deaths of suspects/police.

          Given ages, think I’d have gone for 3rd degree/manslaughter, plus the other charges.  If manslaughter is a ‘lesser included charge’ OK.  Smells like a hung jury, as it stands…

          Don’t think the outstanding warrants on the guy who died rose to the level of ‘death penalty’… yet, the driver is no hapless victim… am thinking jail/prison time (if found guilty), full restitution to county/State for costs of trial/incarceration/imprisonment, and permanent loss of driver’s license.  Minimum.

          Oh, and all medical costs, for all those in the car at the time.  Why should the County/public pay for any of that?

          How can ‘restorative justice’ ‘bring back’ someone who has died?

          1. David Greenwald

            That was one of the initial questions I had which was why pursue the vehicle. Although it seems like they might not have had a chance to even make a determination as they crashed within a mile.

        2. Jim Hoch

          “Smells like a hung jury, as it stands” really depends on what the jury thinks of the defendant. In the Knoller case the defendant was famously unsympathetic while in the Hendrix case dude was just an ordinary loser. 

          Contrary to the favorite narrative of The Vanguard PONC was convicted of the more serious charge while the POC was not. Of course David will likely find a subjective study by some disreputable academic to explain this phenomena.

        3. Keith O

          LOL, I’m finding those studies are a dime a dozen.  Anyone can find a study on the Internet to pretty much back up any contention they might have.

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