SAN DIEGO (NEWS 8/CNS) - Closing arguments concluded Thursday in the trial of a Navy petty officer accused of driving drunk and losing control of his pickup truck on a transition ramp to the San Diego-Coronado Bridge and crashing into Chicano Park below, killing four people. The case was then turned over to the jury for deliberations which will resume Monday.
Richard Sepolio, 27, is charged with gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, DUI and reckless driving in the Oct. 15, 2016, deaths of Annamarie Contreras, 50, and Cruz Contreras, 52, a married couple from Chandler, Arizona, and Hacienda Heights residents Andre Banks, 49, and Francine Jiminez, 46. Seven other people were seriously injured.
Deputy District Attorney Cally Bright began her closing arguments starting just after 11 a.m. Wednesday and continued for about 40 minutes before a break was called in the court. Bright's closing arguments resumed around 1:45 p.m. that day and wrapped about 35 minutes later.
"The bridge didn’t kill four people, the barrier didn’t kill four people," Bright told the jury. "We’re here because of how this defendant drove his vehicle and the condition he was in when he was behind the wheel."
During her closing arguments, Bright talked about the four victims enjoying Chicano Park that day before "death fell on them from above."
Defense attorney Paul Pfingst began his closing arguments just before 2:45 p.m. on Wednesday.
Pfingst warned the jury not to let emotion cloud the evidence in the case.
"The only thing that could make this tragedy worse....the only thing that could make it worse is a convicting an innocent man of a crime he didn't do, that's just compounding the tragedy," said Pfingst.
Court adjourned for the night around 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. Paul Pfingst resumed his closing arguments on Thursday morning.
“We must have the humility to know some things may not be known and some things cannot be proved because we just don't have enough information,” Pfingst told the jury on Thursday.
The clip below shows Pfingst's final words to the jury during closing arguments.
"It turns out this is a tragic car accident that had an incredibly unlikely result that could’ve only happened under a bizarre set of circumstances where there were unsafe barriers without railings at a certain angle of approach with a broken tie rod that nobody could ever predict; and a nice man got into a horrible car accident," Pfingst said. "And don’t [believe], as the prosecution tried to suggest, there’s no remorse or he’s a bad person. They weren’t there when he found out people were killed."
One key point of the case has been the defendant's blood alcohol level. An expert estimated from at least one blood draw that Sepolio's blood alcohol level was between .08 and .09, but the defense says other tests show he was under the legal limit.
"Even if he's innocent, it's hard because nothing will erase the fact that four people died, but it would be wrong to convict an innocent man because it feels hard," said Pfingst.
Pfingst's closing arguments were followed by a rebuttal by the prosecution.
"He lost control of his vehicle because of his own actions," said Cally Bright during the rebuttal.
Pfingst had said the case centers around four seconds of that day, but Bright disagreed.
"This isn't four seconds. This if four hours," she said. "This isn't just what happened on the bridge. This is what happened that day and the choices the defendant made."
Deputy District Attorney Cally Bright closes her rebuttal in the clip below.
"In this case, you have no friend to reward, no enemy to punish or sorrow to assuage," said Bright. "Yours is the solemn duty to speak the everlasting truth."
The case was handed over to the jury following the rebuttal. They deliberated Thursday afternoon before being excused for the night. Court is not in session on Friday so deliberations will resume Monday.
Sepolio testified Tuesday that he was driving on the transition ramp -- a route back to Coronado that he had driven more than 90 times before -- when he sped up to merge in front of another car and lost control.
Sepolio said he remembered being on top of a freeway barrier looking down, then waking up in the park and being pulled out of his truck.
The defendant denied arguing with his then-girlfriend on the phone just before the crash.
Sepolio said his memory was mostly "cloudy" about what happened after his truck plunged into the crowd below.
He said an officer had him blow into a breathalyzer three times and told him two of the readings were .05 and .06 percent.
The officer said "You're not drunk," Sepolio told defense attorney Paul Pfingst.
On cross-examination, Sepolio admitted that he just come from a lunch with a female Navy colleague where "the idea was to go out and have a good time."
Sepolio testified that he had a glass of alcoholic cider and a glass of wine at lunch before heading back to Coronado.
He told Deputy District Attorney Cally Bright that he didn't remember a lot of what officers asked him at the hospital.
In her opening statement, Bright told jurors that Sepolio was traveling more than 80 mph on the transition ramp from northbound Interstate 5 to the bridge about 3:30 p.m. when he lost control of his truck, which plummeted into the park where hundreds of people were enjoying a rally for motorcycle riders.
One of the first responders smelled alcohol on the defendant's breath, the prosecutor said.
Based on a blood draw done at the hospital, an expert estimated Sepolio's blood-alcohol level at between .08 and .09 percent at the time of the crash, Bright told the jury.
Pfingst told the jury that Sepolio, an aviation electrician who works on helicopters at North Island Naval Air Station, passed two blood tests and two breathalyzer tests administered to him by law enforcement.
Pfingst said Sepolio lost consciousness and suffered bruised lungs in the crash but refused pain medication so he could tell officers what happened.
Sepolio faces at least 23 years and eight months in prison if convicted of all charges.
In this clip from Bright's closing arguments she discusses what "gross negligence" means under the law and how it pertains to this case.
One of the topics Pfingst focused on during closing arguments was Sepolio's blood-alcohol level based on blood draws as seen in the clip below.
Deputy District Attorney Cally Bright wraps her initial closing arguments on Wednesday in the clip below.
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