Teen in vehicular homicide sentenced to 6 years prison
A criminal case involving a tragic wreck near Carbondale last May, which took the life of a 17-year-old girl, ended on Tuesday with the 19-year-old male driver being sentenced to six years in prison.
In November, Gerardo Banda pleaded guilty to felony vehicular homicide, vehicular assault and driving under the influence in connection with the May 14 accident. In addition to the prison time, the judge also sentenced Banda to six months in jail for the DUI.
And, because Banda was brought into the U.S. illegally when he was nearly an infant, the conviction will likely result in his deportation back to Mexico, said his defense attorney.
Six young people were in the car when Banda lost control on Thompson Creek Road and rolled the car into a 200-foot ravine, sending five to the hospital and killing 17-year-old Ayleen Ruiz Alvarado.
Before Judge Denise Lynch handed down the sentence, Ruiz Alvarado’s family members spoke to the court.
Though they were visibly shaken, they forgave Banda, but said they wanted him to realize the pain he caused. Marilou Ruiz, the victim’s mother, held a portrait of her daughter. She struggled to begin speaking, through shudders and tears.
“This pain, I want to tell this young man I forgive him, and I did not place any charges on him. But I want justice to be served,” she said through a translator.
She called the day of the crash an unforgettable day, which, compounding the tragedy, was also Mother’s Day.
“I will never be able to hug my girl again,” she said. “For all the holidays and all the special days, he took away the happiness at my home,” she said.
The victim’s older brother, Mauricio Ruiz, said “the happiness of the house is just gone.” His 17-year-old sister was about to graduate, so the family has felt the emptiness, not being able to see her graduate and get her diploma, he said.
Still, her brother told the judge that he wasn’t asking for the maximum or minimum sentence, but that he simply wanted Banda to realize the pain he’d caused.
The victim’s cousin, who was also in the crash and sustained injuries, including a punctured lung, said, “I just want justice for my cousin. She was too young and loved life so much. … I miss her so much.”
The six-year prison sentence was less than the eight years that prosecutors had requested.
Deputy District Attorney Matt Chaput said that Banda’s blood-alcohol content was found through blood draws to be .158, about double the legal limit.
Leading up to the crash, multiple people in the car repeatedly told him to slow down, that he was driving too fast and was out of control, said Chaput.
He had also allowed more people in the car than it was designed for, said the prosecutor. None of the young occupants of the vehicle appeared to be wearing seat belts, emergency responders reported.
Because of those decisions, Chaput offered that a family is devastated by the loss of a child. He added that the seriousness of the case warranted prison time.
Banda was also on probation at the time in a juvenile case. He had been on probation twice before, said Chaput, when he was repeatedly testing positive for alcohol, marijuana and cocaine.
Defense attorney Jason Jovanovich offered a personal note, saying he knew the victim’s family. “There is a heaviness in my heart to appear here today,” he said.
Jovanovich added that there is no doubt Banda made some bad decisions, and perhaps everyone who chose to drink and get in that car. But ultimately he was the driver and was responsible for everyone, said Jovanovich.
“His decision is going to change his life and lives of other irreparably,” he said.
“He was 19 when this occurred, and is still a young man, making this more tragic and upsetting,” said the defense attorney.
Based on Banda’s young age, and his potential for rehabilitation, Jovanovich asked the judge not to hand down a lengthy prison sentence. He said that Banda “throws himself on the mercy of the court.”
Banda, addressing the judge, said that the wreck, the girl’s death and the others being hurt is “something you can’t fix.”
“It eats at me too,” he said. “When they told me to slow down, I thought it was because they didn’t trust me driving. And I forgot there was a curve and a cliff. And it was too late,” he said.
Banda said he wanted the family to know, “I realize what I’ve done is horrible and I take responsibility.
“We were just trying to have a good time. I never wanted this for anybody. I never expected this to happen,” Banda told the court.
Judge Lynch said a probation sentence would not be appropriate in this case, as it would minimize the seriousness of the offense.
“This is why you don’t drink and drive: People die. When you drink and drive, you might as well have a loaded gun,” she said before handing down the sentence.