Sonora, California – Tuolumne County District Attorney Laura Krieg announced today that yesterday, December 19, 2019, a Tuolumne County jury again returned verdicts of guilty on Brenda Barrera, 29, of Modesto, for Murder and Driving Under the Influence of Drugs Causing Great Bodily Injury for an incident that occurred on April 21, 2015 on SR-108 adjacent to Keystone Ranch.
Assistant District Attorney Eric Hovatter, who tried the case in 2016, and again this time, indicated the facts presented to the jury were as follows:
Ms. Barrera had been convicted of a DUI in August of 2014 and had been notified that driving under-the-influence was inherently dangerous to human life and that if she drove under-the-influence again, and someone was killed, she could be charged with murder. On April 18, 2015, while Ms. Barrera was in Sunnyvale, she borrowed a Mercedes Kompressor owned by her former boyfriend and essentially disappeared. Black Oak Casino records had her present at the casino during the early morning hours of April 20, 2015. Casino surveillance then had the vehicle returning to the casino at approximately 7:45 a.m. on April 21, 2015, entering the casino property and driving on the wrong side of the road. Ms. Barrera then left the casino property at approximately 9:15 a.m. and about 30 minutes later several drivers on westbound SR-108 noticed a vehicle being driven very erratically, going off the road and into the opposing lane on multiple occasions as well as speeding up and slowing down repeatedly. This pattern occurred over 8 miles. One driver, after observing the vehicle all over the road, called 911 and reported that the female driver “was going to kill somebody.” Another driver was following Ms. Barrera and activated a dash-mounted camera that caught Barrera’s vehicle going off the road entirely on the right shoulder and over the center line before capturing it cross over and strike a vehicle being driven by 78-year-old Maxsimiano Aldana of Escalon.
The collision killed Mr. Aldana and severely injured his passengers, 69-year-old wife Martha Aldana, 85-year-old Vincente Cabrera and his 80-year-old wife Sara Cabrera. At the scene California Highway Patrol Officer Tim Scott made contact with Ms. Barrera who denied consuming any marijuana since April 16, 2015. Officer Scott and fellow Officer Steve Warzee observed objective signs of intoxication on Ms. Barrera both on the scene and at the hospital and a drug evaluation was performed on her at then Sonora Regional Medical Center by Officer Warzee, a drug recognition expert. He determined she was under the combined influence of marijuana and a central nervous system depressant. A blood sample was taken from Ms. Barrera after her arrest on alcohol-related charges. She suffered very minor injuries and was booked into the Tuolumne County Jail. The next day Officer Warzee contacted Ms. Barrera’s former boyfriend, and owner of the vehicle involved, who told Wazee that Ms. Barrera smoked marijuana whenever she could get it and had taken Xanax (a central nervous system depressant) in the past. Ms. Barrera’s blood sample was tested by the California Department of Justice and found to have marijuana and alprazolam (Xanax) in her system.
The case was originally tried by Mr. Hovatter in 2016 in front of Judge Segerstrom. Ms. Barrera did not testify in that trial and the jury returned verdicts of guilty on Murder and Driving Under the Influence of Drugs Causing Great Bodily Injury. She was sentenced to state prison in 2016, but the case was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 due to the appellate court opining that the Department of Justice witness who testified about marijuana included some opinion evidence that was inadmissible.
The major difference between the trial in 2016 and this trial was that in this trial Ms. Barrera testified. She told the jury she had consumed marijuana on April 20th, was fatigued and did not feel the effects of the drugs, despite signs to the contrary. The second trial lasted 7 days and the jury returned essentially identical verdicts after approximately 6 hours of deliberations. Mr. Hovatter indicated that he was satisfied the jury returned the same verdicts as the last jury in 2016 “The jury’s just verdicts are not a win for anybody. Everyone loses here, including the family of both the victims and Ms. Barrera” said Mr. Hovatter. “But the warning that each person convicted of driving-under-the-influence gets (that they could be charged with murder) is there for a reason and Ms. Barrera flagrantly ignored that warning and took the life of Mr. Aldana, a father of 7 and a grandfather of 26.”