Cezannie Mount was walking home from the fast food restaurant where he worked in 2019 when his life was cut short.
The 24-year-old had been celebrating after being named employee of the month at Raising Cane’s, where his family says he worked to support his dream of becoming a musician. Late that night, he stopped back at work for some food before Cane’s closed at 3:30 a.m.
Mount then decided to make the long walk to his family home a few miles to the west. For some unknown reason, he chose to walk in the street, slowly making his way along Del Amo Boulevard as the occasional car swerved to avoid him.
It was still dark outside on that October morning when California Highway Patrol Officer Alfredo Oros Gutierrez turned his department-issued motorcycle onto Del Amo as he headed to a 5 a.m. shift.
In the moments before he crashed into Mount, prosecutors allege Gutierrez was traveling at close to 70 mph—nearly 30 mph over the speed limit. The impact was strong enough that Mount’s pants flew off his body, and the mangled bike was sent skittering hundreds of feet down the roadway.
Mount died in the street, and Gutierrez was left recovering from gruesome injuries that forced him to retire from law enforcement.
In the hours after the crash, specialized detectives from the Long Beach Police Department began investigating the complicated wreck that left debris scattered over the roadway, but they were soon called off. Instead, a highly skilled team from the CHP took over the case.
Over three years after the crash, that decision—to let an agency investigate its own officer’s criminal culpability in a deadly crash—is now surfacing complex questions of bias and fairness in Gutierrez’s trial that began last month, where he’s facing misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charges in Mount’s death.
“We were horrified when we heard the word misdemeanor associated with the death of Cezannie,” said Eric Dubin, an attorney representing Mount’s family in a lawsuit against the CHP that remains on hold until after the criminal trial.
If the roles had been reversed, with Mount on a motorcycle crashing into a CHP officer in the street, Dubin contends Mount would likely be facing more serious charges.
“Why the CHP was not charged with a felony for killing this beautiful Black young man is an injustice,” he said.
A CHP spokesperson said it’s not out of the ordinary for the agency to investigate crashes involving its own officers, and this case was handled “without conflict of interest.” But Dubin is not the only one who’s questioned the agency’s involvement in this crash, which happened within the Long Beach Police Department’s jurisdiction.
CHP spokesperson Officer April Elliott said this week that the LBPD requested her agency’s help. An LBPD spokesperson said the opposite, that the CHP asked to take over and Long Beach police “obliged the request.”
Regardless of who initiated the switch, the resulting investigation was tilted in Gutierrez’s favor, the prosecutor handling the case bluntly told a judge recently.
In a pretrial hearing last month, Supervising Deputy City Prosecutor James Young said the CHP’s report dwells on what it calls an unblemished driving record for Gutierrez, but it leaves out several speeding tickets he received more than a decade before the crash.
“I think it’s biased, and I think they omitted it,” Young said.
He said the report also praises Gutierrez as a highly skilled rider and concludes that most motorists wouldn’t have been able to avoid Mount in the dark roadway even if they were driving the speed limit.
Ultimately, Young said, the CHP recommended against filing criminal charges. After reviewing the case, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office concurred when it declined to file a felony case and passed it along to the City Prosecutor’s Office, which can file misdemeanors if the DA’s office forgoes more serious charges.
(A spokesperson for the DA’s office noted that this decision was made under former DA Jackie Lacey, prior to George Gascón winning office after campaigning on promises of police accountability.)
The City Prosecutor’s Office filed vehicular manslaughter charges based on what they believed was excessive and unsafe speed. But Young warned Judge Jennifer H. Cops, who is overseeing the case, that the expert investigator from the CHP may disagree with that assessment, possibly leading to an awkward situation where Young will have to try to undermine his own witness.
The question of who is responsible for Mount’s death is now in front of jurors. In his opening statements last week, Young began by showing a picture of the slogan “speed kills.”
“That’s what this case is going to be about,” he said.
Gutierrez’s defense team has pointed out that the CHP was unable to determine exactly how fast the motorcycle was traveling when it hit Mount—giving a possible range between 46 mph and 67 based on how far it slid down the roadway. Instead, prosecutors are relying on grainy, angled security camera footage to calculate his speed at 69 mph about 1,000 feet before the impact.
Defense attorney Michael Schwartz sought to undermine that calculation by pointing out that the motorcycle is nothing but a dark blur in the video. Instead, he highlighted a witness who told the CHP she saw Gutierrez traveling at a “normal speed” just before the crash.
She and others motorists were expected to testify about how difficult it was to see Mount in the dark roadway—regardless of how fast you were going.
“A tragedy occurred, we can all agree on that,” Schwartz said, “but not a crime.”
The trial is expected to conclude next week.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Eric Dubin’s name.