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Hold-ups at crime scenes

Burdens of proof, procedural delays can cause delays for victims seeking justice from the system

Posted: January 22, 2011 8:09 p.m.
Updated: January 23, 2011 4:30 a.m.
 

As thousands watched the Fourth of July fireworks show above Westfield Valencia Town Center, an Infiniti sedan crashed into an SUV, and was launched into a crowd of spectators gathered at Valencia Boulevard and Mall Entrance in Valencia.

Matilde Garnica, a 43-year-old mother from Newhall, was killed instantly by the sedan; seven others were injured.

More than seven months later, criminal charges have not been brought against the 22-year-old driver from Canyon Country suspected of causing the deadly crash, even though detectives have videos taken from witnesses showing that the woman raced through a red light.

The Garnica case is one of several high-profile criminal investigations in the Santa Clarita Valley that have dragged on for months but have yet to result in criminal charges.

Officials from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said lengthy criminal investigations are common throughout California.

 While police agencies can arrest suspects for probable cause, deputy district attorneys must meet a higher burden of proof: They must demonstrate that evidence gathered by investigators would result in a conviction. After that, they can bring the case to court.

And while the gears of justice slowly turn, the families of those affected by a crime are left in an emotional limbo as they wait for closure.

 DMV records sought
Detective Jeff Maag of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station has been investigating the Garnica case for months.

Last week, he said authorities could file a case with the district attorney in a few more weeks.

Maag said he has obtained numerous videos shot by witnesses that show the Infiniti driver running a red light and crashing into the SUV. However, prosecutors wanted documents from the Department of Motor Vehicles before formally charging the driver, Maag said.

It has taken longer than anticipated to get what the district attorney’s office wants from the DMV, he said.

“We’re still sitting in the same place but we’re getting closer,” Maag said. “I’m waiting on information from the Department of Motor Vehicles to put the nail in the coffin for this case.”

Prosecutors have not determined whether to charge the woman with a misdemeanor or a felony, Maag said. Since the investigation is still open, he said he would not disclose the information prosecutors wanted him to get.

 Further investigation
Investigators work closely with prosecutors to develop a case.

Prosecutors often take years to file charges, building a case piece by piece.

The statute of limitations for filing a misdemeanor case in California is one year, said Los Angeles County District Attorney’s spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons.

For felony cases, where a conviction means longer sentences in state prison, the statute of limitations is three years, Gibbons said.

“Our standard for filing, and the standard of every District Attorney’s Office, is proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Gibbons said. “A lot of times, we’ll tell law enforcement that there needs to be further investigation. That’s common.”

For example, one prominent case came out of a June 2008 hit-and-run in Saugus. Los Angeles Police Officer William Skett backed over a man and a woman in his Hummer and then fled the scene. Both were injured.

Skett was arrested for felony hit and run at his home on June 21. He posted bail the next day.

It was eight months before charges were brought against Skett. He was convicted in October 2010, and is scheduled to be sentenced in February.

Maag also investigated that crime. The detective said the prosecutor brainstormed how a defense attorney could poke holes in the case.

More investigating was needed to tie up potential loose ends.

“(The prosecutor) was anticipating what the defense attorney was going to do,” Maag said. “She wanted everything taken care of so we could nip the defense in the bud. Even after Skett was arrested, I was doing a lot of stuff, getting more information from witnesses and taking more pictures.”

As crimes are investigated and cases are prepared, those directly affected by a crime are left waiting for resolution.

Earl Biggs, 77, was crossing Coldwater Canyon in Van Nuys on Jan. 8 when he was struck by a car and killed.

The driver, who is believed to have been driving a dark-colored Ford Thunderbird, drove away from the scene.

Detectives are still searching for the car, according to Biggs’ son Jeff Biggs of Valencia.

The family has not been able to hold a funeral for Earl Biggs yet, his son said Friday. The body is still with the county coroner because the investigation into the hit-and-run is still open.

“We want to make funeral arrangements as soon as we can,” Jeff Biggs said. “He deserves to be honored and remembered and respected.”

Los Angeles police arrested Stevenson Ranch resident Adrian Diamand for investigation of the crime on Jan. 9. Diamond was later released with no charges, according to past reports. He denied ever driving a car matching the description of the one that killed Earl Biggs.

Jeff Biggs said he’s worried that the person responsible for his dad’s death may never be found. The longer it takes to find the car, the more likely that possibility becomes, he said.

“Every day, I wake up thinking there’s something I can do to try and catch the guy that did this and find the car,” Jeff Biggs said. “With every day that goes by, it decreases the odds of (the driver) being caught. It’s a very helpless feeling.”

Anyone with information about the crash is asked to call LAPD Valley Traffic Division officers at (818) 644-8032 or detectives at (818) 644-8021.

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