A driver admits he drank before killing a family; now a jury must say if it’s murder

A high-profile Long Beach trial began Thursday with a defense attorney’s blunt assessment to jurors: They’ll likely find his client guilty of drunkenly crashing into and killing a young family on Halloween 2019.

“Let me be the first to tell you that I believe the people can prove that,” attorney Bryan Schroeder said about three charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated that are pending against 23-year-old Carlo Adrian Navarro.

What they can’t prove, he said, is that Navarro acted so recklessly his actions amount to murder, charges that would carry a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 25 years. A conviction on the manslaughter charges would carry a maximum of about 15 years in prison.

Navarro has admitted he was behind the wheel of his SUV when it careened at high speed into 3-year-old Omar Awaida, father Joseph Awaida and mother Raihan Dakhil, who were headed home after trick-or-treating near Los Cerritos Park.

Navarro, who was 20 at the time, also told investigators he’d been drinking whiskey from a corner store called Green Diamond Liquor, where he’d illegally gotten booze “too many times to remember,” authorities say.

Amor Amacio shown holding a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in Green Diamond Liquor where 20-year-old Carlo Navarro told investigators he got alcohol before crashing into and killing Raihan Dakhil, Joseph Awaida and 3-year-old Omar Awaida. Photo from security camera video obtained by the Long Beach Post.

As Schroeder alluded to, few facts about the crash are in dispute. The question at trial will be whether Navarro knew how reckless his actions were and choose to proceed anyway.

“This was a terrible terrible accident to be sure,” Schroeder told jurors in his opening statement. “It’s not murder. It’s never been about murder.”

Prosecutors say otherwise, something that would require them to prove Navarro showed a conscious disregard for human life. (They don’t need to prove he intended to kill anyone.)

As she outlined her case before calling the first witness, Deputy District Attorney Karen Brako told jurors she will call one of Navarro’s former teachers to testify he learned about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and driving drunk in her class.

She will also try to use Navarro’s own words against him.

During police interviews in the days after the crash, Navarro admitted to drinking daily, according to Brako. He allegedly told investigators, “That he was aware if he drank and got behind the wheel of a car, he could kill somebody.”

Carlo Navarro, 21, appears in a Long Beach courtroom Wednesday, January 13, 2021. At trial, on Thursday, June 23, 2022, he wore a suit and tie. No cameras were allowed in the courtroom. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Brako said she’ll also show police body camera video from about six months before the crash, when officers found Navarro passed out in the driver’s seat of his SUV. He’d been drinking, Brako said, and told officers he “knew he couldn’t drive.”

It’s evidence, she’ll argue, that Navarro was aware of what a terrible mistake he was making on Halloween 2019.

Both attorneys warned jurors that the trial would be full of emotional testimony and disturbing images.

Schroeder asked jurors not to be swayed by the heartbreaking nature of the crash.

“Those emotions are not part of this case,” he said. “This case is about the facts, the law and the science.”

But emotional testimony abounded in the trial, which is expected to run until next month in Long Beach Superior Court.

3-year-old Omar Awaida in the plush lizard costume he wore on Halloween 2019. Photo courtesy the Awaida family.

One witness, when asked to describe the Halloween crash, took a deep breath, dabbed his eyes with a tissue and then pressed his hand against his face before saying how the force of impact flung the Awaida family 40 to 50 feet.

Another witness said he couldn’t bring himself to look under the car where little Omar’s body had come to rest. He was among the crowd of good Samaritans trying to gather enough people to lift the vehicle off Omar, who they knew must’ve been badly injured.

At one point Brako briefly flashed photos of the now-mangled stroller Omar had been riding in and the plush lizard costume he’d worn while trick-or-treating.

She also showed jurors security camera video of the Awaidas walking slowly past the park when headlights come into the frame on the ground behind them.

Navarro’s SUV jumps the curb and hits the family so fast that one juror flinched and clasped her hands, a look of shock on her face.

As the video played, Joseph’s mother looked away. She stared at the floor, she said, not wanting to see the moment her son, daughter-in-law and grandson were killed.

A crash, 3 deaths and questions of blame

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Jeremiah Dobruck is managing editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his journalism career in 2007 as an intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula News and has worked for The Forum Newsgroup in New York City, the Daily Pilot and the Press-Telegram.
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