A judge today declared a mistrial when jurors deadlocked over whether to convict a CHP officer of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter for crashing into and killing a 24-year-old man walking in the street.
Officer Alfredo Oros Gutierrez was on his way to work at about 4:40 a.m. on Oct. 27, 2019, when he hit Cezannie Mount, who was in the No. 1 lane of Del Amo Boulevard near Cherry Avenue.
Prosecutors alleged Gutierrez was riding his department-issued motorcycle at close to 70 mph—almost 30 mph over the speed limit—in the moments before he hit Mount, who was headed home after a night of celebrating being named employee of the month at his fast-food job. It’s not clear why Mount was walking in the roadway, where other drivers had to swerve to avoid him.
To determine if Gutierrez was guilty, jurors were asked to decide whether he was riding with the care you’d expect from a reasonable driver and if speed or negligence were substantial factors in Mount’s death, regardless of whether Mount’s own actions helped put him in harm’s way.
They began deliberating on the afternoon of March 14 and by the next morning informed Judge Jennifer H. Cops that they could not come to a unanimous verdict. After several more rounds of voting in the jury room, the judge declared a mistrial on Tuesday afternoon once all 12 jurors confirmed they were hung 10-2 in favor of acquittal.
“It now appears to the court that this jury is hopelessly deadlocked,” Cops said.
After leaving the courtroom, four jurors said the two holdouts were deadset on conviction.
“They just wanted to go on what they believed and not the facts that were presented,” one juror said.
In a trial that stretched across two weeks, the prosecutor sought to portray Gutierrez as a careless driver. To estimate Gutierrez’s speed, investigators from the CHP used security camera video recorded about 1,000 feet before the crash. At the time of impact moments later, investigators estimated Gutierrez was going between 46 mph and 67 based on how far his bike slid down the roadway after the crash.
“The motorcycle slid more than a football field. That’s not 20 or 30 miles per hour. That’s not 40 miles per hour. That’s something greater. That’s an unsafe speed,” Supervising Deputy City Prosecutor James Young told jurors in his final arguments.
One juror said she thought the prosecution’s case was “very weak” and collapsed under the defense’s cross-examination of the CHP investigator who made the speed calculations.
Michael Schwartz, Gutierrez’s defense attorney, forced the CHP investigator to admit the motorcycle was nothing more than a blur in the security camera footage, making it difficult if not impossible to make an accurate estimate of how fast it was traveling over the span of a few frames of video.
Similarly, Schwartz pointed out investigators could never determine the exact point the motorcycle hit Mount, only a general area. Schwartz contended this undermined any estimate about how far the bike slid across the ground.
He urged jurors to disregard the speed calculations, saying they’d been “blown out of the water.”
Instead, Schwartz alleged, prosecutor Young wanted jurors to assume that Gutierrez was doing something wrong simply because he crashed into Mount when others hadn’t.
“What he’s doing is: He’s utilizing the fact that an accident occurred, a tragedy happened and saying he must be guilty because he’s the one that hit him,” Schwartz said. “That’s wrong.”
Schwartz focused jurors on the only witness to the moment of the crash, who said she saw it from a distance in her rearview mirror. Crucially, she testified that the motorcycle appeared to be traveling at a “normal pace,” not swiftly gaining on her as one traveling almost 70 mph would have.
After the wreck, Gutierrez spent months recovering from a brain bleed and other serious injuries that forced him to retire from law enforcement.
The CHP, which took over the investigation from the LBPD, ultimately recommended against charging him with a crime, according to attorneys on the case. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office agreed, declining to prosecute after concluding it wouldn’t be able to prove the gross or extreme negligence needed to uphold a felony charge.
The Long Beach City Prosecutor’s Office, however, decided to file misdemeanor charges, which required them to prove only ordinary negligence.
An attorney representing Mount’s family said they were horrified that Gutierrez faced only the low-level charge. Mount, who attended Poly High School and earned a music degree from Earlham College in Indiana, was working at Raising Cane’s in Lakewood to support his dream of becoming a hip-hop artist, according to his family.
Still living at home, Mount was his father Alvin’s best friend, according to attorney Eric Dubin. As the criminal case against Gutierrez dragged on, Alvin suffered a stroke shortly before it went to trial, according to Dubin, who is representing the family in a civil lawsuit against the CHP.
“The Mount family never had a chance for justice in the criminal system against this CHP officer who even CHP experts agree was speeding 70 mph in a 40 mph residential area just prior to hitting and killing Cezannie,” Dubin and co-counsel Annee Della Donna said in a statement. “We plan on getting this beautiful family justice in our upcoming wrongful death trial, where the true unbiased evidence will be presented.”
Prosecutors have not made a decision about whether to refile the criminal charges.
Defense attorney Schwartz said he hopes the city prosecutor will give more weight to the jury’s opinion than any potential political gain when he makes his choice.
“Like we said from the beginning, the case was tragic all around, but that’s what it was, a tragedy and not a crime,” Schwartz said. “ … Ten people were for not guilty based on the evidence and the law. So we’re hoping that the prosecutor’s office takes into account that the public has spoken and everybody should move on. That’s what trials are for.”