Another sad Traffic Fatality case unfolded this week in Judge Thane Covert's Pinellas County courtroom. Agustin Palma Trejo, who was 18-years old at the time of the accident, was driving a trackhoe the wrong way on U.S. 19. In an unfortunate twist of fate, Donald Cochran was on his way to Biff Burger, on April 21, 2007, when his truck swerved and struck the large construction trackhoe that Palma Trejo was operating. For the complete story, check out the article in today's St. Pete Times.
This case is a bit unusual for several reasons. To begin with, Palma Trejo was charged with Manslaughter, not DUI Manslaugher. Secondly, both the State Attorney's Office and Palma Trejo's attorney agreed that the trackhoe was only traveling at the rate of 4 mph. However, the State and the defense disagreed on whether the trackoe's lights were on and whether Palma Trejo was properly trained to operate the large piece of machinery.
Last month, Palma Trejo entered an "open plea," meaning that he did not have a plea agreement with the State Attorney's Office. After entering an "open plea," the Judge can sentence a Defendant to any legal sentence (i.e., up to the maximum sentence allowed by law or something less than what the sentencing guidelines would normally call for). In Palma Trejo's case, he could have received 15 years in prison on the Manslaughter charge, which is a Second Degree Felony.
At his sentencing hearing earlier this week, Palma Trejo pleaded to the judge for leniency. With the assistance of a court translator, he stated "I only want to ask the family for foregiveness... I know what it is like to lose a father."
Because Palma Trejo was under 21 years of age, his attorney was asking the Court to sentence him as a "Youthful Offender," which would have allowed Judge Covert to sentence him below the recommended guideline sentence (to include any form of community supervision such as community control or probation).
At the sentencing hearing, Judge Covert also heard testimony from Cochran's family which spoke of the emotional and financial toll that Cochran's death has caused them. Echoing the position of the victim's family, Assistant State Attorney Scott Rosenwasser (a very experienced traffic homicide prosecutor) asked the judge for the maximum punishment.
In announcing his sentence, Judge Covert stated that he was sentencing Palma Trejo as a "Youthful Offender" (which reduced Palma Trejo's maximum sentence to six years in prison). The Judge also stated that while Palma Trejo was in the country illegally, he was doing his best to maintain an honest career and support his family back in Mexico (after the death of his father).
As is often the case, the victim's family stated after Court that they thought that Palma Trejo was let off easy. Cochran's widow, Ruth, stated "As an illegal immigrant, he shouldn't have even been here."
Despite the unique issues presented in this case, the end result was quite common as both families left the courtroom unhappy and feeling cheated.
Traffic fatality cases typically involve highly technical forms of evidence (such as testimony from an accident reconstruction expert and/or the doctor from the Medical Examiner's Office who conducted the autopsy and made a determination as to the "cause" and "manner" of death). Therefore, these cases should always be handled by a defense attorney that has the necessary training and experience to effectively defend his/her client against not only the government, but oftentimes the media and/or the community at-large (which frequently come to the table with preconceived notions or biases).
If you or someone you know has been involved in a traffic fatality accident, the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney should be sought immediately. Normally, when a case involves a "legal blood" sample, the police will investigate the case for 4-6 weeks while they wait for the toxicology results to come back from the lab. It is during this time -- between the time of the accident and the time that the police wrap up their investigation -- that an experienced criminal defense attorney can provide crucial legal counsel and assistance.
To speak to us, please call 727.286.6141. The Blake & Dorsten, P.A. is available 365/24/7 to consult on any traffic fatality case.