By PAUL ANDERSON
WESTMINSTER, Calif. – A 28-year-old Garden Grove man was convicted Wednesday of an alcohol-fueled collision that killed a bicyclist in Huntington Beach.
Victor Manuel Romero, who has a prior conviction for drunk driving, was convicted of second-degree murder and hit-and-run causing permanent and serious injury. He was convicted of killing 33-year-old transient Raymond MacDonald.
Romero is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 10.
Jurors deliberated for about five hours in the case.
“This is a case about the defendant’s choices on March 30, 2019,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Janine Madera said in her opening statement of the trial. “The evidence will show that the universe was suggesting to him to make different choices, but he did not.”
Romero’s evening “started at Hurricane Bar and Grill” in Huntington Beach, Madera said, adding that the defendant drove to the bar in his BMW and later got into a fist fight in the parking lot. Police were flagged down.
`By the time they got there the fight is over, but what they can see is objective signs of intoxication and they ask him how are you going to get home, Madera said.
He told one officer he would call for an Uber, and he told another minutes later his sister would pick him up, Madera said.
But, instead, he got into a parking garage elevator with a witness, Richard Cole, who saw Romero’s torn shirt and his inebriated state, the prosecutor said. Cole asked Romero if he was going to drive, “and he says, `yeah,’ and he (Cole) tries to tell him that’s not a good idea,” Madera said.
Romero, who went “screeching” out of the parking lot, crashed into the Cadillac owned by the bar manager, Geronimo Gutierrez, Madera said.
A short time later, he slammed into MacDonald at Beach Boulevard and Adams Avenue, Madera said. An Uber driver saw the defendant speeding and driving through a red light before striking the bicyclist, according to the prosecutor.
Romero kept going until he slammed into a tree at Adams Avenue and Lake Street, Madera said. Another witness, Christopher Groh, said Romero passed him at such a high rate of speed his car shook, she said. Groh got out of his car to help Romero, but by the time he got there the defendant had run away, Madera said.
Romero ended up back at the Hurricane Bar, where he told Gutierrez that it wasn’t him who crashed into the bar manager’s Cadillac, Madera said.
“The defendant tells Mr. Gutierrez, `I was carjacked. It wasn’t me,”‘ Madera said.
Romero still had the car’s key around his neck and police checked to make sure it matched the BMW, Madera said. Later, investigators collected MacDonald’s DNA from the outside of the car, the prosecutor added.
Romero’s blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.18 two hours after the crash, Madera said. He also had marijuana in his system, the prosecutor added.
In 2012, Romero pleaded guilty to driving drunk and was given what authorities call a Watson advisement, which warns DUI offenders that if they get caught drunk driving again and kill someone they will face charges upgraded from manslaughter to murder, Madera said.
“When questioned by police, he remembered that warning,” Madera said.
Romero’s attorney, Madeline Berkley of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, said the collision was “tragic,” but she said Romero did not have a “conscious disregard for human life” on that night, referring to the legal standard for an implied malice murder legal theory.
A doctor testified how the concussion he likely suffered from repeated blows to the head in the fight affected his ability to make decisions, Berkley said.
The fight was “pivotal and transformative to what happened,” Berkley said.
She showed jurors cell phone video taken from social media of the scrum that showed Romero’s combatants elbowing and punching him in the head repeatedly.
“The doctor is going to tell you that making complex decisions is difficult after a blow to the head,” Berkley said. “At the end of this trial I am going to ask you to find my client not guilty of murder because there’s no evidence of it.”