The Vehicular Manslaughter trial for Luis Gonzalez is set for next week, starting Tuesday. Gonzalez is charged with running over Tia Poklemba, then leaving her to die. He was one of Lee County’s most wanted for some time, and was featured on America’s Most Wanted. Tips ultimately led to his arrest in Mexico after four years on the lam, and he was extradited back to Florida last year.
The state has chosen to charge the case as Manslaughter with a Weapon, instead of Vehicular Homicide. Normally Manslaughter and Vehicular Homicide are second degree felonies, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. However, as charged with the aggravating factor of a weapon, this manslaughter charge is enhanced to a first degree felony, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. The vehicular manslaughter charge could also be enhanced by failing to render aid. The State must feel they have a stronger case that the vehicle was being used as a weapon. This suggests they may proceed on a theory of manslaughter by act or procurement, instead of by culpable negligence. If the Defendant was guilty on a negligence theory, that would suggest the vehicle was not a weapon.
I’m doing my legal nitpicking, because this case is probably not about the enhancement. This case is probably about whether or not they can put Mr. Gonzalez behind the wheel. The evidence reported indicates that Ms. Poklemba was run over twice, going forward and backward. There is apparently video of her hanging out with Mr. Gonzalez earlier in the evening. The challenge for the state will be proving that he was driving at the time Ms. Poklemba was hit. It may be a circumstantial case, which is difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
Just last week, the state lost a DUI Manslaughter case because they could not prove the Defendant was driving. The facts are very different: in that case, there was evidence that the other person thrown from the vehicle was the driver. But DUI manslaughter cases are difficult, especially if there is no wheel witness.
Gonzalez faces up to 60 years in prison. In addition to the Manslaughter with a Weapon charge, he is charged with leaving the scene of an accident involving death, also a first degree felony. Court watchers take note, two excellent attorneys in ASA Dan Feinberg and Defense Attorney Donald Day are likely trying the case.