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Father on Trial in Death of Girl Not Riding in Car Seat : Law: Prosecutor says that he ‘abandoned his responsibilities.’ The vehicular homicide case is thought to be the first of its kind to go to court.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A Nicaraguan immigrant bowed his head and wiped tears from his eyes Thursday as he heard a prosecutor describe him as having “abandoned his responsibilities” as a father when he failed to put his 3-year-old child in a car seat prior to a crash that took her life.

The trial of Ramiro de Jesus Rodriguez on vehicular homicide charges in the traffic death last year of his daughter is believed to be unprecedented. Although there have been criminal charges filed in connection with similar deaths--including one last fall in Los Angeles County--this is the first to come to trial.

The case against Rodriguez, 30, who came to the United States three years ago to avoid serving in the Sandinista army, is expected to be short and brutally graphic, with pictures of the wrecked vehicles and the bloodied victim introduced into evidence. Prosecutors, who have resisted a wave of negative publicity over their decision to bring the case to trial, have said they will seek probation rather than the maximum five-year sentence possible on conviction.

“If Veronica Silva had been in a child-restraint seat in the back of the car, she may have been bruised, she may have had muscle tears, but she’d be alive today,” Assistant State Atty. Mark Vargo said in his opening statement Thursday to the six-person jury.

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The force of the crash, he said, “literally slit her head open, (and) removed the top of her head. She died because a man drove recklessly . . . and the fact that the man who did all these things to her is her father is not an excuse.”

Rodriguez was driving a brown 1978 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, heading home to his Hialeah, Fla., apartment on the morning of Aug. 3, 1990, after a short trip to the pharmacy for medicine. His wife, Carmen Silva, sat beside him in the front passenger seat, holding the couple’s daughter, who was cranky with a fever and a rash.

Even though the couple owned a second car that was equipped with a car seat, they took the Monte Carlo, which was not, “because his wife decided to hold Veronica,” said Rodriguez’s attorney, Reemberto Diaz.

Blocks from their home, Rodriguez was making a left turn in front of a truck that had stopped to turn left in the opposite direction when a white van in a lane partially hidden by the truck plowed into the front of the car. On impact, Veronica flew forward, her head smashing into the windshield. She died in the emergency room four hours later.

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Although Rodriguez’s failure to use a child-restraint seat is an issue in the trial, Rodriguez is formally charged with killing his daughter by operating a car “in a reckless manner likely to cause the death of another person.”

To gain a conviction, prosecutors must prove that Rodriguez acted recklessly by turning left in front of the oncoming van, and that he also neglected the Florida law that since 1983 has required all children under the age of 4 to be restrained in a child car seat.

A similar California law was used last fall to bring manslaughter charges against Walter Sylvia Jr. after his 6-year-old son Michael was thrown from a car during an accident and died. But prosecutors later dropped the charges after a public outcry.

Since he was charged, Rodriguez has continued to work as a cook while receiving national media attention, as well as moral and financial support from Miami’s large Nicaraguan community. During a recess in the trial Thursday, the couple gave interviews to Spanish-language television reporters while a dozen relatives and friends held up a Nicaraguan flag as background.

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Rodriguez, dressed in a dark suit, insisted again Thursday, as he has to People magazine, ABC-TV’s “20/20" and in many other interviews, that the loss of his daughter is punishment enough for his mistake. “That was the most terrible day of my life,” he said. “I can’t believe I’m here on trial.”

Added his wife, Carmen: “This would not be happening to us if we were not Latinos.”

Diaz, Rodriguez’s attorney, told jurors that Veronica’s death “was a tragedy that will haunt him for the rest of his life.”


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