Jury trial on track for Ventura tow truck owner facing hit-run charge in death of teenager Jonathan Hernandez
A judge on Friday denied a Ventura tow truck owner's request to reduce a felony charge he is facing for allegedly fleeing the scene of a fatal accident after a 14-year-old on a bicycle collided with the man's vehicle last year.
Hermin Martin Henderson, owner of Double R Towing, appeared before Ventura County Superior Court Judge Michael Lief. Henderson, 52, is also facing a misdemeanor charge of destroying or concealing evidence.
Henderson, who is out on bail, was ordered to return to court Aug. 17 for jury trial.
Deputy District Attorney Lauren Malan said Henderson was driving a
flatbed truck east on Telegraph Road about midnight Feb. 18, 2016, when
the truck hit a Ventura teen, Jonathan Hernandez, as the boy rode his
bicycle south on Saticoy Avenue.
Malan said although Henderson may not have caused the accident, the investigation showed the Ventura man tried to conceal evidence. Defense attorney David Lehr, however, said Henderson told investigators he did not know about the fatal accident until someone else called him the next afternoon.
Lehr said his client washed that truck and another one
the next day after the accident, but only to prepare the vehicles and
other trucks in his fleet for an inspection with the California Highway
Malan, however, has said the Ventura man had constructive knowledge he was involved in a fatal traffic collision well before he reported it to law enforcement.
Lehr filed a motion to reduce Henderson's felony charge to a misdemeanor and a separate motion to dismiss that charge, but Lief denied both requests.
Lehr argued that the prosecution did not present any facts that Henderson knew he had been involved in a fatal accident at the time it occurred or that the Ventura man "willfully failed to stop" and did not provide assistance to Hernandez.
Lief, however, found there was "no fault" in Ventura County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Bennett's preliminary hearing decision on July 27, 2016, that there was enough evidence to charge Henderson with the felony and misdemeanor.
Lief added that the defense's request to reduce the felony charge was not appropriate at this juncture of the case, since not all of the evidence has been "laid out" for him to consider.
"Even if the court were to address it on its merits, the court doesn't believe it has enough information to make that decision," Lehr said. "The court's position is that in many cases, the court benefits having the opportunity to hear from parties in great detail when it's asked to decide whether a charge ought to be a misdemeanor or a felony."
Malan said there was "more than ample evidence" to support the charging document filed in the case. The prosecutor said Henderson could face a maximum four years in state prison just for the felony charge, but given various factors, the Ventura County District Attorney's Office is not seeking a prison sentence at this time.
"At this point, the People's position has been that it's a probation case based on many different factors, including the defendant's lack of criminal history and lack of fault for the accident," Malan said after Friday's hearing. "Were it to go to jury trial, however, that position could change. It's always a different scenario, once we have witnesses testify during a full-blown trial."
More than two dozen of Hernandez's family members and friends sat quietly inside the courtroom during Friday's hearing. Many wore "Justice for Jonathan Hernandez" T-shirts with a drawing of a bicycle with angel wings.
"This family has shown a lot of strength and resilience," Malan said. "They have been to every court appearance and understand the judicial process and know this is a marathon, not a sprint. They have shown the fortitude to represent their loved one and still be civil, and they should be commended for that."
Lehr said if the felony charge of fleeing the scene of a fatal accident were to be dropped to a misdemeanor, Henderson would plead guilty to that charge as well as the misdemeanor charge of destroying or concealing evidence.
The defense attorney said Henderson lost about 75 to 80 percent of his tow trucking business, which had relied mostly on service-request calls from the California Highway Patrol and Ventura and Oxnard police departments.
Lehr said the Ventura man has also received various threats, including vandalism at his business and personal property.
"It's extremely unfortunate because we have a young person whose body was physically destroyed by the truck, but again, that was not the fault of Mr. Henderson because he was obeying the law," Lehr said. "Jonathan, for whatever reason, didn't stop at the red light and didn't slow down. If he reacted at all, he reacted at the last quarter second of his life.
"If it would save the victim's family and my client from going through this painful trial, he would plead to the misdemeanors, but right now, it is set for a jury trial. Mr. Henderson is a good guy ... but I don't think the D.A.'s Office has the political willpower to do the right thing and change this into a misdemeanor."