An Orange County jury found a 29-year-old woman guilty Tuesday of murder and driving under the influence in a crash last year in Huntington Beach that killed three Las Vegas teenagers and seriously injured a fourth.
After barely an hour of deliberations, Bani Duarte of San Clemente was convicted of three counts of second-degree murder and one count of driving under the influence causing great bodily injury. A sentencing enhancement allegation of inflicting great bodily injury was found to be true.
“Thank you, God!” a relative of one of the victims said after the first guilty verdict was read.
Duarte could face 51 years to life in state prison at her sentencing Oct. 30, according to prosecutors.
Shortly after 1 a.m. March 29, 2018, a Toyota Corolla containing the teenagers — who were in Huntington Beach for spring break — was struck by Duarte’s Hyundai Sonata while stopped at a red light at Pacific Coast Highway and Magnolia Street. The Toyota was pushed into a pole and caught fire.
Brooke Hawley, 17, Dylan Mack, 18, and A.J. Rossi, 17, were killed. A fourth occupant, Alexis Vargas, was severely injured.
The last day of the trial, which began Sept. 24, started with a closing statement by Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Daniel Feldman.
“In this type of murder, Bani Duarte does not get to say, ‘But I was drunk and didn’t know better,’” Feldman said, pointing out that voluntary intoxication is legally not a defense to second-degree murder.
Feldman played a 911 call by three young men who said they saw Duarte’s car strike a curb and that they offered her a ride before she got back in the car, continued driving at high speed and shortly after crashed into the back of the Corolla.
While talking to a dispatcher, one man on the audio clip said, “One of the cars is on fire,” drawing gasps and sobs from members of the victims’ families in the Santa Ana courtroom.
Feldman pointed across the room at the defendant, saying the root reason for the trial was that “she decided she didn’t want to take an Uber after a night of drinking.”
More than an hour after the crash, Duarte had a blood-alcohol level of 0.28% — more than three times the legal limit, according to evidence presented in court and a Huntington Beach Police Department document attached to an arrest warrant.
“What are the probable consequences of drinking to three times the legal limit, driving a car, driving at nearly 80 mph and striking the back of a vehicle?” Feldman said. “Nobody sitting here is shocked that at that blood-alcohol level and that speed that people were killed.”
“This is an unmitigated tragedy from start to finish,” he added. “If this has gotten under your skin, then you are paying attention.”
In his closing argument, Duarte’s attorney, Justin Glenn, implored the jury of seven women and five men to “get into her mind.”
“You’ve got to get into her head and make assumptions,” Glenn said.
Glenn suggested Duarte may have been frightened or intimidated by the men who made the 911 call.
“These three guys who just tried to get [her] in their car now won’t leave,” Glenn said. “She takes off at a high rate of speed and what do they do? They pursue her.”
He reiterated that Duarte hadn’t been ordered to take DUI-related classes and hadn’t been given a Watson advisement, a statement signed when a person is convicted of DUI that affirms that driving under the influence can result in death. It can be used against the person if he or she is accused in a future DUI case.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Gary Paer ordered Duarte held without bail until sentencing.
Sclafani writes for Times Community News.