A state appeals court panel Friday upheld a man’s second-degree murder conviction for a crash that killed a Los Angeles police officer and injured his partner, who had been chasing one of the defendant’s friends in the Harbor City area.
The three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal found that the evidence “reasonably supports” the jury’s finding that Mynor Enrique Varela “intentionally used” his Chevrolet Tahoe SUV as a deadly weapon.
Varela is serving a life prison term without possibility of parole for the May 3, 2014, early morning crash at Anaheim Street and Senator Avenue.
Officer Roberto Sanchez, a 32-year-old newlywed who had been on the police force for six years, was pronounced dead about two hours after the crash, and his partner, Richard Medina, suffered a broken jaw and other injuries.
The appellate court panel noted that Varela “immediately sped after the police car” when it began chasing his friend’s Chevrolet Camaro, which had been spinning “donuts” in the middle of the street.
“Defendant, who had recently consumed beer, purposely pursued the police car at a high rate of speed, reaching the maximum rate of acceleration for the Tahoe to do so,” the justices noted in their 13-page ruling. “Even as the distance between the Tahoe and the police car narrowed, defendant did not apply hard brakes and instead tapped the brakes and then pressed the accelerator. Further, rather than drive straight forward on his path, which would have avoided a collision, defendant steered his Tahoe, a heavy sports utility vehicle, toward the lighter police car, resulting in a fatal collision.”
Varela and his brother “successfully fled from the collision site, relatively unscathed,” the justices noted.
Police searched the vehicle and found a partial can of beer, an identification card and vehicle registration information identifying Varela as the SUV’s owner. He voluntarily appeared at a police station about nine hours after the crash.
Deputy District Attorney Geoff Lewin told jurors during the first trial that Varela used the SUV to try to stop the officers, who were trying to make a U-turn to pursue the Camaro being driven by Varela’s friend. Lewin said the prosecution was not contending that it was an intentional murder, but someone acting in disregard of a dangerous situation.
Defense attorney Regina Filippone — who represented Varela in his first trial — told jurors that the crash was an unavoidable tragedy and that the case was about Varela and “1.2 seconds in his life.”
Most people need 1.5 seconds to perceive and react to a dangerous situation, she said, telling jurors that Varela had just 1.2 seconds to react as the patrol car began to make a U-turn and that her client swerved to the left to try to avoid the impending collision.
“He could not have avoided this accident,” Filippone told jurors. “There was no hatred of the police. There was no reason for him to take his pride-and-joy truck and ram a police car, none.”
Varela was convicted in 2017 of two counts of assault on a peace officer and one count of leaving the scene of the crash, but jurors deadlocked on the murder and vehicular manslaughter charges on which the second jury to hear the case found him guilty of in August 2018.
The second jury also found true allegations that Varela knew or should have known that Sanchez was engaged in the performance of his duties as a peace officer and that Varela personally used a deadly and dangerous weapon — his SUV — and fled from the scene of the crash.
The appellate panel rejected Varela’s claim that the prosecution should have been barred from re-trying him on the murder charge after the first jury convicted him of leaving the scene of an accident but deadlocked on the murder count. The panel noted that his conviction for leaving the scene of an accident “did not include a necessary finding that defendant acted without intent in causing the collision,” which would have precluded a retrial.
The trial court had turned down a similar claim before Varela’s retrial.
At Varela’s sentencing in October 2018, Superior Court Judge James D. Otto called it “a very tragic case for all concerned.”
“It’s very serious for the defendant who made what appears to be a bad choice,” the judge said then. “Only he knows (why) and he chose not to share it with us. … When you make decisions, there are consequences.”
The officer’s partner, who spoke at the sentencing, said, “Not only was he my partner but best friend … We shared a lot of laughs both on and off-duty, but they were cut short that night.”
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