Whiteville | A Columbus County Superior Court jury weighed available evidence in the case of Jose Jesus Garcia Lopez and came back Friday with a conviction of involuntary manslaughter for a 2004 motor vehicle crash that took the life of a Tabor City woman.
Lopez, 34, was also convicted of hit-and-run/fail to stop for personal injuries or death, assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury and felony death by vehicle.
Prosecutors sought a second-degree murder conviction in connection with the head-on crash Dec. 19, 2004, on N.C. 904 that killed Natalie Housand, 20. Lopez, a Mexican national who testified Thursday through an interpreter, claims his brother was driving his Jeep Cherokee at the time of the crash but said he was too drunk to remember any details.
The maximum prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter is two years. Lopez could have received about 20 years if convicted of the murder count. Lopez will be sentenced Tuesday after a hearing, where aggravating factors will be presented by prosecutors.
The seven-woman, five-man jury deliberated about two-and-a-half hours before returning with its verdict. Disappointment was evident on the face of prosecutors, who like others involved in the trial remain subject to an order by Judge Ola Lewis not to discuss the case.
Trial testimony has shown that after the head-on collision, Lopez fled the crash scene into nearby woods and reappeared more than an hour later, cut and bleeding. Prosecutors maintained throughout the trial that he was driving the Jeep. Defense lawyer Scott C. Dorman told jurors in his summation that there was no physical evidence to prove Lopez was behind the wheel.
Attempts by Dorman and prosecutors to locate Victor Garcia Lopez, the defendant's brother, were unsuccessful. None of the witnesses in the five-day trial saw him at the crash scene. Several state troopers and employees of the Whiteville hospital that Jose Lopez was treated at testified the defendant admitted to driving the car.
Lopez displayed no emotion as the verdict was repeated to him by an interpreter.
Authorities have said Lopez entered the country illegally. He testified during the trial he has been in the United States for 14 years and had legal work papers and a valid N.C. driver's license. During the jury selection process, Dorman questioned each candidate about his or her attitude regarding the immigration issue.
Lopez could receive up to four years for the assault with a deadly weapon conviction. By convicting Lopez of involuntary manslaughter, jurors agreed he was negligent in his actions but did not act with malice. Lopez could receive a prison term of about eight years if he is sentenced consecutively for the four felonies.
A blood sample taken from Lopez four hours after the crash showed a blood alcohol content of 0.12 percent. A prosecution witness testified during the trial that Lopez' BAC at the time of the crash was 0.18 percent, more than twice the 0.08 percent legal limit for drivers in North Carolina.