Police probe fatal wreck
At press time, no decision had been made about what charges, if any, might be filed in the case of a fatal Port Aransas auto accident in which eight children allegedly weren’t wearing seatbelts at the time of the Aug. 19 wreck.
Nueces County District Attorney Mark Skurka cautioned that the Port Aransas Police Department hasn’t finished its investigation into the accident, and he said he didn’t yet have all the facts involved in the matter.
But, speaking generally, Skurka said prosecutors may consider leveling felony charges in cases with similar circumstances.
The mid-afternoon accident occurred on State Hwy. 361 near the Cinnamon Shore development. A 2000 Mitsubishi
Montero Sport, an SUV, was traveling north on State Hwy. 361 when it drifted off the highway, struck a concrete culvert and flipped end over end, landing on its roof.
The investigation hasn’t determined yet why the vehicle left the roadway, said PAPD Chief Scott Burroughs.
Everyone in the SUV – two adults and eight children – was from San Antonio. The driver was identified by police as Ruben Renteria, 33. The other adult was 31-year-old Jeanette Castanon, identified by PAPD as Renteria’s friend.
Seven of the children were related to Castanon, according to a news release issued by PAPD. The other child was identified as a family friend.
Jacob Ricarte, 8, and Jelena Robles, 2, were killed. Jacob was Jeanette Castanon’s son. Jelena was her niece.
Renteria wasn’t arrested, but police obtained a blood sample from him and are waiting for results of tests to see if the driver may have been under the influence, according to police and the District Attorney’s Office.
In a case in which intoxication plays a factor, prosecutors can consider filing charges of intoxication assault or intoxication manslaughter if people are injured or killed in a wreck, Skurka said.
Intoxication assault is a third-degree felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison and fine up to $10,000.
If convicted of intoxication manslaughter, a second-degree felony, a person could be sentenced to two to 20 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
Even if no intoxication is involved, a driver can be charged with criminally negligent homicide if evidence shows that the driver caused a death as a result of being negligent in his or her operation of a vehicle, Skurka said.
Criminally negligent homicide is a state jail felony punishable by up to two years in state jail.
A driver can be charged with manslaughter if the driver causes an accident and kills someone while operating a vehicle recklessly. That’s a second-degree felony with a punishment of two to 20 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
Skurka explained the difference between criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter by describing two hypothetical situations.
In one, two men are walking down the street, and they spot a gun lying in the gutter. Neither has seen the gun before. One man picks it up, starts playing with it, pulls the trigger and accidentally kills the other man.
The man with the gun didn’t know the gun was loaded, but he should have been aware that was possible, and that it could have gone off and hurt someone, Skurka said.
“In this case, he wasn’t aware of the risk, but he should have been,” the prosecutor said. That’s the essence of what must be proven to get a conviction on a charge of criminally negligent homicide, he said.
In another hypothetical, Skurka described a situation in which a man loads his new gun with bullets and shows the firearm to another man. The gun owner engages in horseplay, waving the weapon around and accidentally pulling the trigger, firing a bullet that kills the other man.
In that scenario, Skurka said, the gun owner could be convicted of manslaughter, because he was reckless.
“Reckless is if you are aware of the risk, but do the act anyway,” Skurka said.
Just as in the hypothetical scenarios involving guns, the question of whether a driver in a fatal car accident is charged with criminally negligent homicide or manslaughter depends largely on whether the driver was aware of the risks or should have been, and whether recklessness was involved, Skurka said.
Many other facts involved in the incident also must be taken into account in determining whether charges should be filed, and what kinds of charges, he said.
People don’t always face charges in fatal car accidents. Sometimes, an accident, though tragic, is just that – an accident.
“But,” Skurka said, “if circumstances show recklessness or negligence, that might be something different.”
In 2009 – the latest year for which statistics were available – 23,382 drivers and passengers were killed in car accidents in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Of the fatalities in which authorities were able to determine whether seatbelts were used, 53 percent weren’t using seatbelts, the agency reported.
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