El Monte street racing trial nears end

POMONA — Closing arguments began Thursday in the trial of two men charged with murder in connection with an El Monte street racing crash that left a local woman and her two children dead.
The jury was advised they may consider three counts of gross vehicular manslaughter as a verdict, in addition to three counts of second-degree murder.
Robert Canizalez, 20, and Martin Morones, 22, are charged with the Oct. 8, 2007, deaths of 41-year-old Dora Groce, her 8-year-old son Robert and her 4-year-old daughter Catherine in an Oct. 8, 2007, crash at Elliot Avenue and Parkway Drive. Authorities allege the deaths were the result of a street race between the two defendants.
The prosecutor in the case, Deputy District Attorney Stacy Okun-Wiese, argued the case was an obvious case of gross vehicular manslaughter that rose to the level of murder.
“They have no regard for human life,” Okun-Wiese said. “This disregard of human life makes these defendants guilty of murder.”
Defense attorney Henry Bastien, who represents Canizalez, argued that while what his client and Morones did was dangerous, they did not recognize a risk to human life, and therefore lacked the intent or “implied malice” required for a murder conviction.
“Have you ever climbed into the mind of a teenage boy?” Bastien said. “They think differently when it comes to recognition of risk. They just don’t recognize the risk.”
The prosecutor argued that the men knowingly endangered the lives of others when they engaged in a race on a residential street at speeds estimated at 77-87 mph. The men had both lived in a nearby mobile home park, where the Groces also lived, so they were familiar with the area and knew it to be well-travelled and regulated by stop signs.
The disregard for others was further evidence, the prosecutor said, by the fact that the defendants fled the scene.
When Canizalez did return to the crash scene minutes after the crash, as witnesses testified, Okun-Wiese argued he showed no regard for the injured and dying Groces.
“Does he come back to help? No,” she said. “He comes back to threaten people and to make terrible statements.”
According to witness Gerardo Romero, the prosecutor said, following the crash Canizalez stated, “I don’t care about the(expletive) kids, look at my (expletive) car.”
After Morones pushed his damaged car away from the crash scene, Okun-Wiese said, “He flees to Mexico. That’s why he’s here today, because he was apprehended by U.S. Marshals.”
“The facts are so much more than manslaughter,” she added. “They showed implied malice, which is murder.”
“The evidence is overwhelming that they knew what they were doing and didn’t care,” Okun-Wiese said.
Bastien said the evidence did not prove Canizalez and Morones displayed conscious disregard for human life.
The attorney said the road was clear ahead of them and the race occurred in broad daylight, so the racers did not believe they were putting lives at risk.
Bastien said although witnesses testified they saw Canizalez driving erratically only hours before the fatal crash, there was no evidence he had ever crashed or even had a near miss.
“When there are no accidents, that success breeds confidence and fans the flames of invincibility,” he said.
The defendants may have been, “walking around with blinders” concerning the danger street racing poses to human lives, the attorney said, but they were not guilty of murder.
Bastien further argued that a culture filled with movies like “The Fast and the Furious” and video games that glorify the adrenaline rush of racing contribute to the feeling of invincibility young street racers feel.
“They glorify the adrenaline rush, they emphasize the skill level and they desensitize,” Bastien said.
Bastien is expected to conclude his closing arguments Friday, and defense attorney Gary Meastas will present his closing statement on behalf of his client, Morones, before the case is turned over to the jury for deliberation.
In response to the crash, the City of El Monte has installed speed bumps in the area where the collision occurred.
Throughout the trial, a group of about half a dozen members of the defendants’ families as well as the father and husband of the crash victims, Stephen Groce, and his nephew.
Family members of both groups declined to comment during the trial.
Stephen Groce, who lost his wife and two children in the 2007 crash, has filed a a $100 million lawsuit against Canizalez, Morones and the Nissan Corporation, which manufactured the Altima sedan the Groces died in.
Canizalez and Morones face possible sentences of 15 years to life in prison for each count if convicted of murder. Gross vehicular manslaughter carries with it a a possible sentence ranging from less than one year in county jail to six years in prison for each count.
Canizalez has also been charged with witness intimidation after allegedly threatening a young witness at the crash scene.
If convicted of witness intimidation, Canizalez could be sentenced to an additional two to four years in prison.
El Monte police Detective Rick George, who investigated the case, said the crash was a tragedy.
“No matter what, I wish this never happened,” he said.