Early on a January morning, Ruben Gurrola ate only pretzels and chips at a friend’s Newport Beach home, unaware that seven hours later, he’d be driving his black Honda Civic 65 mph on the wrong side of a highway and into oncoming, honking, swerving traffic.
Because of plans to party with booze, 24-year-old Gurrola and his group decided to take taxis to and from Costa Mesa’s Sutra nightclub.
That was a wise notion, and if it had been followed, he wouldn’t have spent 2018 begging federal judges to save him from being labeled a murderer.
After all, Gurrola previously took a drunk-driving class and watched Red Asphalt, a California Highway Patrol (CHP) horror flick that shows actual images of gruesome roadway deaths.
During a two-and-half-hour period beginning at 9 p.m., Gurrola consumed several beers and nine cocktails, including Malibu Rum and vodka, according to a police investigation.
He and his girlfriend, Allison Poon, left the club by taxi after an argument and returned by themselves to their friend’s house before midnight. But none of the friends followed them, leaving them locked out for an hour or 90 minutes.
Gurrola assumed the impact of his partying had weakened because of the time lapse from his last drink.
Well, as much as anybody can make decent assumptions when they have a blood-alcohol level close to a whopping .20 percent.
The Pomona resident decided he could drive them home safely.
At around 1:45 a.m. on Jan. 29, 2012, motorists on the 241 toll road and on the 91 freeway in Anaheim called 911 to report a wrong-way driver who’d forced them to swerve off the road to avoid collisions.
Young Kim and Sally Namgoong were returning home after celebrating the Chinese New Year at Pechanga Resort and Casino when Gurrola slammed head-on into their white Camry.
Kim lost consciousness when his ankles shattered; Namgoong lost her life because of multiple blunt-force-trauma injuries.
CHP patrol officer Scott Woodward, the first cop to arrive, saw Poon in her seat with a severely shattered nose. Woodward then found Gurrola lying on the highway. His eyes were red and watery. He’d suffered fractures to his left femur and sternum, as well as wounds to his lungs.
During a field sobriety test, a mumbling Gurrola gauged a 30-second period as 76 seconds.
An Orange County jury convicted him of DUI, inflicting great bodily injury and second-degree murder in November 2014. Three months later, a Superior Court judge sentenced him to 15 years to life in prison. The California Court of Appeal sanctioned the conviction a year later, and the California Supreme Court refused to consider the case in 2017.
That’s when Gurrola, anxious to get out of prison after six years of incarceration, turned to federal judges. He’s been claiming that three of the four statements he gave the CHP shouldn’t have been admissible because of alleged Miranda warning violations and, worse, that he’d been mentally incapable of coherence because of the pain from his injuries and the potent drugs, likely Fentanyl, given to him at the hospital.
He’s also argued that if his trial judge had properly instructed the jury before its deliberations, the panel may have found him guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
“[There’s an] important difference in the required proof of mental state between gross negligence manslaughter—which required evidence of conscious indifference to the consequences, and an implied malice murder—which required conscious disregard for life,” Gurrola’s attorney wrote in the appeal. “The distinction . . . is subtle but nevertheless logical. Phrased in everyday language, the state of mind of a person who acts with conscious disregard for life is: ‘I know my conduct is dangerous to others, but I don’t care if someone is hurt or killed.’ The state of mind of the person who acts with conscious indifference to the consequences is simply: ‘I don’t care what happens.’ It makes sense to hold the former more culpable than the latter, since only the former is actually aware of the risk created.”
Whichever view a jury adopts on the facts ultimately translates into more or less time in prison for a defendant.
“[Gurrola] didn’t have the mindset of ‘I don’t care if somebody is hurt or killed,’” Anthony Taylor, the defendant’s trial attorney, told the jury in his 2014 closing argument. “He’s thinking, ‘I’m okay. I think I’ll make it home safe.’”
U.S. Magistrate Judge Alka Sagar, who studied the case in-depth, used those statements this year to help conclude that the jury had been adequately advised of the defense view of the case and that panel reasonably sided with prosecutors. Sagar also determined that even if there were Miranda violations, they were “harmless.” She recommended denial of Gurrola’s appeal.
This month, Los Angeles-based U.S. District Court Judge Ronald S.W. Lew agreed, closed the case and denied the inmate’s ability to appeal his ruling.
Gurrola, 30, will continue to remain locked indefinitely inside the California Training Facility, a prison in Soledad.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.