Case Results: Death in the Desert

DEATH IN THE DESERT – “PEOPLE v. R.S.”
Type of Case: Criminal
County: San Bernardino – Victorville District
Charge: PC 192(c)(2) – Vehicular Manslaughter
Verdict: Acquittal

FACTS:
There are few days within the individual human experience that we can point to and say that that day, that particular day, had such a profound impact on me, that it changed my life forever. Some may point to their wedding day. Others will point to the day that their children were born. For R.S., the day that changed his life forever was March 2, 2014.

The morning of March 2, 2014 had come quickly for R.S. and his ten (10) your old son, S.S. The two left their house in Apple Valley at approximately 6:30 a.m. as it was their plan to drive up to Nevada to visit S.S.’s paternal grandparents. While R.S. had gone to bed fairly early the night before, hitting the sack around 9:30 p.m., S.S. had chosen to stay up with cousins. R.S. found him still up talking at 11:30 p.m.

On the morning of March 2, 2014, the two left their Apple Valley residence on their way to Nevada. After stopping to get gas, coffee and road snacks, the two entered the I-15 freeway at approximately 7:00 a.m. Tired from the night before, S.S. leaned the front passenger seat of their 2001 Chevy P.T. Cruiser in the down position, in order to catch some shut eye before arriving at his grand parents house. The morning passed by. R. S. drove, listening to the radio, as S.S. slept in the seat next to him.

As the hours ticked by, the scenery changed from the multi-lane busy I-15 freeway, to State Route 127, a two lane desert roadway with sporadic traffic in either direction. Approximately five (5) miles, south of Saratoga Road, traveling at approximately 65 mph, R.S. reached for his soda. In doing so, the wheels to the P.T. Cruiser drifted off the paved roadway, onto the gravel shoulder located to the right of the vehicle. The gravel “grabbed” his wheels and caused the vehicle to travel off the roadway. In an effort to regain control of the vehicle, R.S. turned the steering wheel towards the left, which caused the vehicle’s tires to “grab” onto the roadway and in essence, shot him across the southbound lane. His vehicle left the roadway, hit a dirt berm. The vehicle went airborne for approximately forty (40) feet, hit the ground and went airborne for an additional forty-three (43) feet. The PT Cruiser than rolled two (2) to (3) times before coming to a rest.

Dazed after the incident, R.S. immediately reached for his son. He unfastened the seatbelt and called out to S.S. To his surprise S.S. was not laying down beside him. He was not seated beside him, nor was he in the back seat. In fact, S.S. could not be located anywhere inside the vehicle. Calling for his son, R.S. staggered out the driver’s side of the P.T. Cruiser. Slowly, he made his way around the car. As he rounded the corner of the passenger side of the vehicle, his stomach dropped and stomach acid rose to his throat. There trapped underneath the rear tire was S.S.

Immediately, R.S. attempted to lift the vehicle off of son, but did not have the man power to do so. He ran toward the road and waved down a good Samaritan, who stopped and helped him lift the vehicle off of S.S.

At approximately 9:37 a.m., California Highway Patrol was dispatched to the scene of the collision. At 10:06, S.S., the ten year old boy who had brought so much joy and meaning to the life of R.S. was pronounced dead at the scene.

PROSECUTION THEORY:

On June 16, 2014, R.S. was charged by the San Bernardino District Attorney’s Office with one count of Vehicular Manslaughter, violation of Penal Code §192(c)(2).
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The prosecution believed that because there were no signs of webbing on the front passenger seat seatbelt consistent with loading and that because it was unbuckled, fully retracted and locked in place, the seatbelt was not in use at the time of the incident. This theory was supported by the fact that S.S. was ejected from the vehicle at the time of the collision. The prosecution argued that R.S. was criminally responsible for the death of his son.

Speed was not an associated or contributing factor.

DEFENSES:

The defense raised several explanations of what could have occurred during the collision that killed S.S. Helpful to the theories raised by the defense was the book “Unsafe At Any Speed” by product liability super attorney Brian Chase, in particular, chapter 7 entitled “When Seatbelts Fail”. Defense raised the following scenarios to explain how S.S. could have been ejected from the vehicle, without webbing being noted on the passenger side vehicle:

Ramping, which was either caused by seat back collapse or because the passenger seat had been declined by S.S. just prior to the collision. Ramping is when a person slides out from under a restraint system when the seat back has either collapsed or has been placed in the declined position. In this position, the seat belt is ineffective.

The coroner admitted on the stand that he had heard of ramping and concluded that it was a possible explanation of what had occurred in the collision leading to S.S.’s death.

The defense further raised the possibility of inadvertent latching where a poorly designed release button on the buckle is inadvertently pressed by a body part or some other object during the collision. The investigating law enforcement officer and coroner both testified that the collision was extremely violent and debris and objects, as well as, R.S. and S.S. had been thrown around in the collision.

R.S. testified on his own behalf, describing for the jury the details of how the collision had occurred. His testimony reflected the tremendous grief and anguish he felt from the passing of his ten (10) year old boy.

Ultimately, after multiple days of deliberation the jury acquitted R.S. of the offense.