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State v. Amaya-Rodriguez

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fifth Circuit

November 13, 2019



          COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE, STATE OF LOUISIANA Honorable Bridget A. Dinvaut Henri P. Dufresne


          Panel composed of Judges Jude G. Gravois, Marc E. Johnson, and Hans J. Liljeberg


         Defendant, Denis Y. Amaya-Rodriguez, appeals the consecutive nature of the sentences imposed by the trial court following his convictions for three counts of negligent homicide. For the reasons stated more fully below, we affirm defendant's convictions and sentences.


         On October 10, 2016, a St. John the Baptist Parish grand jury indicted defendant with three counts of negligent homicide in violation of La. R.S. 14:32. On January 9-11, 2018, the case was tried before a six-person jury that found defendant guilty as charged on all three counts. Following a sentencing hearing on April 9, 2018, the trial court sentenced defendant to imprisonment at hard labor for five years on each count to run consecutively for a total of fifteen years. The trial court also imposed a fine of $5, 000.

         On April 23, 2018, defendant filed a timely Motion to Reconsider Sentence Relative to Consecutive Sentencing of the Defendant that was denied on April 26, 2018. On May 29, 2018, defendant filed a Notice of Intent to Appeal Conviction and Motion to Reconsider Sentence. On that same date, the trial court granted defendant's motion for appeal.


         Early Sunday morning on August 28, 2016, defendant was driving a 2003 black El Dorado party bus filled with approximately 40 passengers. The bus was on the I-10 bridge just west of Laplace headed towards Baton Rouge. While on the bridge, defendant encountered slow-moving traffic in the left lane passing the scene of a prior single-vehicle accident located in the right lane of the bridge. Defendant continued to drive the bus at a high rate of speed in the right lane, and when he encountered the prior accident scene, he cut over into the slow moving traffic in the left lane. Defendant failed to slow the bus down and crashed it into the back of a red Toyota Camry. The impact pushed the Toyota Camry into the back of a trailer being pulled by a Chevrolet Silverado. The bus then clipped the left front of a fire truck that was blocking the right lane where the prior accident occurred. After crashing into these vehicles, the bus then knocked three firemen who were standing next to the guardrail on the side of the bridge into the water below. The Toyota Camry and Silverado crashed into the vehicle involved in the initial accident.

         A total of 39 individuals were injured due to the accident. Three individuals died - a fireman, Spencer Chauvin, and two passengers in the Toyota Camry, Jermaine Starr and Vontarous Kelly. The entire back of the Toyota Camry was destroyed due to the force of the impact with the bus. Defendant was subsequently charged with the negligent homicide of these three individuals.

         At the time of the accident, William Beal was employed by the St. John Parish Fire Department as a firefighter operator. He testified at trial that on August 28, 2016, the fire department received a call regarding a single-vehicle accident on the bridge. Mr. Beal and his partner, Nick Saale, responded to the call in a fire truck. Their district chief, Spencer Chauvin, arrived in his unit vehicle. Mr. Beale explained that when they arrived at the accident scene, they parked the fire truck behind the accident scene and angled the truck outward from the right shoulder into the right lane to protect the scene from oncoming traffic. Mr. Beale further testified that they activated all of the lights on the fire truck, as well as a "directional" yellow strobe light to divert traffic to the left lane.

         While waiting for a tow truck to arrive, Mr. Beal and Mr. Saale were leaning against the guardrail, and Mr. Chauvin had his back to the interstate. Mr. Beal then saw a pile of debris fly up into the air and a bus coming toward them. He pushed Mr. Saale and tried to grab Mr. Chauvin because they did not see the bus. Mr. Beal testified that he got hit and recalled waking up in the water below the interstate. Mr. Chauvin told him he thought his leg was broken and Mr. Beal helped him stay above the water. Mr. Beal yelled to Louisiana State Police Trooper David Easley, who had also responded to the scene of the prior accident, to grab a ladder and get on the radio to call for help.

         Mr. Beal testified that a person on the bridge pointed out an object in the water. Mr. Beal then reached under the water and located Mr. Saale, who was unresponsive and not breathing. Mr. Beal started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and chest compressions, and eventually, Mr. Saale started breathing again. Mr. Beal personally sustained several injuries, including a torn meniscus in his right knee, a thumb injury, a right shoulder injury, and a head injury. Mr. Beal testified that the accident changed his life and he has constant nightmares and relives the accident every day.

         Louisiana State Trooper Easley testified that on the morning of August 28, 2016, he received a call to respond to a single-vehicle accident on westbound I-10. He pulled his vehicle into the right lane of the bridge between the fire truck and the vehicle in the accident. After conducting his investigation, Trooper Easley returned to his vehicle to input information into his computer. Three firemen, Mr. Chauvin, Mr. Beal, and Mr. Saale, were standing approximately 100 feet in front of his vehicle against the bridge guardrail.

         Trooper Easley testified that he was sitting in his car with his window down, when he heard a crash next to him. He stated that a red vehicle was struck and that glass and debris came into his vehicle. A bus then passed across the front of his vehicle and struck the bridge guardrail a few feet in front of where the three firemen were standing. Trooper Easley next saw that the firemen were missing. He called for help and observed bus passengers breaking windows and trying to get out of the bus. He then saw Mr. Chauvin and Mr. Beal in the water, but he could not find Mr. Saale. Trooper Easley asked other individuals on the scene to help him retrieve a ladder and put it in the water. Trooper Easley went down the ladder and a man standing on top of the bridge told him he saw Mr. Saale. He testified that Mr. Beal pulled Mr. Saale up out of the water and tried to clear his airway.

         Trooper Easley recalled that Mr. Chauvin told him his leg was broken and he and others helped Mr. Chauvin stay above the water until they were able to place him in a basket and bring him up onto the bridge. Mr. Chauvin appeared to be in a great deal of pain and lost consciousness. Trooper Easley testified that following the accident, ten ambulances and five helicopters responded to the scene to assist with the victims. The accident victims were sent to ten or eleven different hospitals.

         Jana Schwartzberg, a Louisiana State University student, testified that on the morning of August 28, 2016, she was traveling westbound on I-10 in the left lane when she noticed a fire truck stopped ahead in the right lane. She looked in her rearview mirror and saw a black bus moving very fast behind her vehicle. The bus passed by her in the right lane and she assumed it would try to cut in front of the slow-moving traffic ahead of her in the left lane. She testified that she saw the bus try to suddenly cut over, after which debris "flew everywhere." The bus then swerved to the right and Ms. Schwartzberg saw more debris fly into the air. She did not see the black bus slow down or the driver apply his brakes at any time. She explained that after witnessing the crash, she stopped her car and ran to the accident scene where she saw several people in the water.

         On that same morning, two additional witnesses reported that they saw the black bus driving erratically about eight to ten miles before the accident scene. Corey Landry and his co-worker, Gerard Breaux, testified that they were both driving eighteen-wheeler trucks hauling heavy machinery. Mr. Breaux was traveling west in the right lane on I-10 behind Mr. Landry when he looked into his mirror and saw a black bus moving over the center line. He noticed that the bus was moving close to his load and ...

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