POMONA — A jury convicted a West Covina man of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and other crimes for a fatal car crash just over a year ago in which his 19-year-old passenger was killed.
The jury failed to reach a verdict on the charge of murder, officials said.
William Garzon, 22, already had two drunken driving convictions when he crashed his car in the early morning hours of March 18, 2010, after a night of partying on St. Patrick’s Day, officials said. The crash in the 2800 block of Cortez Street claimed the life of his acquaintance and passenger, 19-year-old Niamarie Lopez of West Covina.
“He killed his passenger after being warned and warned (about drunken driving),” said Deputy District Attorney Stacy Okun-Wiese, who prosecuted the case.
After four days of trial and a week of deliberation, the Pomona Superior Court jury found Garzon guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, driving under the influence, driving with a blood-alcohol level above .08 and driving with a suspended license, Okun-Wiese said.
The jury hung, however, on a fifth charge of murder. Judge Steven Blades declared a mistrial after the jurors revealed they were deadlocked on the murder charge.
Garzon faces up to 15 years to life in prison for the other charges when he returns to court for sentencing April 18, Okun-Wiese said. At that time, officials will also hold a pre-trial hearing to discuss whether prosecutors will re-try Garzon on the charge of murder.
Lopez’s sister, Shae Yamaguchi, said, though the trial process is a difficult one, she wants to see Garzon tried again on the murder charge.
“This kid who killed my sister is absolutely guilty of murder,” she said. “I was really upset that (the jury) could not find him guilty of second-degree murder.”
The murder charge stemmed from the fact that Garzon had two previous convictions for DUI in 2008 and 2010, Okun-Wiese explained.
When defendants are convicted of drunken driving, they are warned, either in writing or by a judge, that further drunken driving could cause a death, the prosecutor said.
In the case of Garzon, Okun-Wiese said, he received such a warning twice after his previous DUI convictions.
“He was read one in court, and he signed the other one,” she said.
Prosecutors have argued successfully in the past that the reckless disregard for human life displayed by drivers in some fatal crashes — such as repeated drunken drivers or street racers — amounts to “implied malice” and makes them guilty of murder.
Yamaguchi recalled her sister as “the life of the party,” the “center of attention,” and “absolutely gorgeous.”
“There were 1,200 people at her funeral, and she was 19 years old,” she said.
Lopez was raised in West Covina and graduated South Hills High School, Yamaguchi said. She was studying to become a nurse and worked for the Southern California Gas Company at the time of her death.
“She was extremely charismatic and talkative. She was a friend to the friendless,” her sister said. “She loved people in general.”
PHOTO of Niamarie Lopez courtesy of family members.