Eight prosecution witnesses and scores of objections from attorneys characterized a marathon preliminary hearing held Wednesday to determine whether a man suspected of leading a Bakersfield police officer on a chase that resulted in the officer's death will stand trial.
As the hours passed and the afternoon wound down in Kern County Superior Court, it became clear the “prelim” would have to continue into a second day as deputy public defenders representing Julian Carlos Hernandez battled it out with Deputy District Attorney James Simson.
Hernandez, 32, is being held on $2 million bail in connection with a July 26 single-vehicle crash that killed Bakersfield Police Officer David Nelson. Hernandez is facing six felony counts, including second degree murder, vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, evading an officer causing death, possession of a firearm by a felon and possessing ammunition while prohibited from owning a gun.
The prosecution’s first witness was Bakersfield Police Detective James Moore, who interviewed Hernandez following his arrest.
Hernandez, Moore testified, admitted to having a loaded shotgun in the 2015 gray Hyundai when he was pulled over at 2:37 a.m. at Flower and Haley streets.
“He told me he loaded it,” Moore told attorneys and Superior Court Judge Eric Bradshaw. “He said he used black electrical tape to tape a flashlight to the barrel.”
Throughout the day, the prosecution attempted to show that Hernandez was fully aware that his actions — evading an officer; driving city streets at high speeds — was inherently dangerous.
The reason for the initial traffic stop? A radio transmission from Nelson said the vehicle was unlicensed. But when Nelson approached the Hyundai on foot, Hernandez accelerated — and the deadly chase began.
Indeed, surveillance video obtained from a market at Flower and Haley, and another at Haley and Bernard Street, appeared to show the Hyundai moving north on Haley, with a police cruiser in hot pursuit, according to two more BPD witnesses.
Under questioning from defense attorneys Ernest Hinman and Peter Kang, Moore acknowledged Hernandez said he threw the shotgun from the car to avoid a shootout with police.
“He also said he didn’t want to shoot himself in the head,” Moore told the court.
Indeed, desperate thoughts of possible suicide seemed to be on the defendant’s mind during the chase, which, according to radio traffic from Nelson, reached 75 mph.
“He told me that at one point it was his plan to drive off the bluffs,” Moore said of Hernandez.
“He told me that stopping was not an option.”
For its part, the defense pointed out through questioning of witnesses that Hernandez voluntarily tossed the gun because he wanted to avoid violence against police. The defense also noted that Hernandez said he slowed at stop signs on Haley.
In countering the contention that Hernandez wanted to fight police, Kang referred back to the police interrogation of Hernandez, who, in a somewhat bizarre comment, told investigators he wanted to go “toe-to-toe” with an officer in the boxing ring.
The stakes are high in this case. That was made even more clear when Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green and others from the DA’s office showed up to watch the proceedings from the gallery.
Wednesday afternoon, when Simson called police witnesses to provide testimony regarding past traffic incidents Hernandez has been involved in — including riding a moped or small skooter without a helmet and a fender-bender two years ago in which Hernandez apparently rear-ended another vehicle — Hinman relentlessly challenged the relevance of the testimony, arguing that it was a “sign of desperation on the part of the prosecution.”
But Simson countered that Hernandez’s lengthy history of speeding and other vehicle code violations showed that the defendant was well aware of the deadly game he was playing in initiating a police chase of city streets.
“All of it goes to his awareness of the risk,” Simson told the court.
The hearing is scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. Thursday.