A Bakersfield man who last month led police on a high-speed chase that ended in the death of a Bakersfield police officer will stand trial on second-degree murder and five other felony counts.
Kern County Superior Court Judge Eric Bradshaw found Thursday there was enough evidence presented at the preliminary hearing to order Julian Hernandez bound over for trial on the murder count as well as vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence; evading an officer causing death; possession of a firearm by a felon; possessing ammunition while prohibited from owning a gun; and carrying a loaded gun with a prior felony conviction.
Hernandez, 32, is being held on $2 million bail in connection with the June 26 single-vehicle crash that killed Bakersfield Police Officer David Nelson.
The hearing, which lasted nearly two days, included eight prosecution witnesses and was peppered by scores of objections from attorneys, numerous sidebars held behind closed doors, and mostly courteous advocacy by both sides in a legal chess match that saw only rare flashes of temper and few moments of frustration.
Hernandez could face a life sentence if convicted of the murder charge. He has admitted leading Nelson on the early-morning chase, but his attorneys argued that there was not sufficient evidence to prove he was aware there was a high probability his actions would result in loss of life.
Deputy District Attorney James Simson, however, scoffed at that argument.
“Driving at high speeds on city streets” while attempting to evade a pursuing law enforcement officer, Simson said. “How could anyone not know that is dangerous?”
“Had the defendant stopped when he should have, the accident would not have happened,” the prosecutor said.
And Nelson, he implied, would still be alive.
Simson’s first witness Wednesday was also his last Thursday. Bakersfield Police Detective James Moore, who interviewed Hernandez following his arrest, provided a window into the defendant’s statements and actions before and after Hernandez was pulled over at 2:37 a.m. at Flower and Haley streets in east Bakersfield.
Other Bakersfield police officers testified to video surveillance at two locations, the route of the chase, speed limits and traffic signs along the way and radio calls from Nelson. But as the prosecution’s primary witness, Moore attempted to tie it all together.
Aerial maps were used to show where Nelson exited his patrol car and approached the borrowed Hyundai Elantra that Hernandez was driving. A surveillance video obtained from the mini-mart at the northwest corner of Flower and Haley showed the Hyundai accelerating from the store’s parking lot and heading north on Haley.
Another camera at Haley and Bernard streets, according to BPD Officer William Wesbrook, showed the Hyundai run the stop sign at that corner, with Nelson’s patrol vehicle following.
Further information from another officer who was attempting to catch up with the vehicle chase indicated that Nelson appeared to be about 50 yards behind Hernandez when the latter turned east at Panorama Drive. Nelson reported via his radio he was doing 75 mph throughout much of the pursuit.
Why Nelson’s patrol vehicle turned sideways just before reaching Panorama and Mount Vernon Avenue and skidded into a concrete block wall may forever be a mystery.
Although Nelson was not wearing a seat belt, that fact was not mentioned by defense attorneys Ernest Hinman and Peter Kang. In fact, the defense team did not present any evidence, possibly saving their strategy for trial.
Nevertheless, in his final arguments, Kang was adamant.
“The facts of this case simply do not support a murder conviction,” Kang told the court.
“Mr Hernandez didn’t understand how a law enforcement officer could slam into a wall,” Kang said. “Even the prosecution and their witnesses could not explain how this could occur.”
And when Hernandez tossed the shotgun along Panorama, just east of Mount Vernon, it showed he was not interested in getting into a gunfight with police.
Kang called the murder charge “improper and disproportionate.”
But Simson reminded the court that even before the police chase began, Hernandez had embarked on a situation that was fraught with danger.
He covered the Hyundai’s license plates with paper, he transported a 12-gauge shotgun in the car, but not before loading it and taping a flashlight to the barrel, Simson argued.
And when Hernandez bolted, Simson said, “the officer was forced to make a choice between his own safety and doing his job.”
Hernandez, Simson argued, exhibited “an absolute indifference to human life.”