Mistrial declared in crash that killed deputy, teenager

The Fresno Bee

(Updated Wednesday, August 3, 2005, 5:38 AM)

Augustine Alejandro Zapata faces another trial after deadlock.
A mistrial was announced Tuesday in the trial of Augustine Alejandro Zapata, who is accused of evading police and causing a crash that killed his pregnant girlfriend and a sheriff's deputy in May 2003.

Fresno County Superior Court jurors voted 11-1 to find Zapata guilty of second-degree murder.

Because the vote wasn't unanimous, Judge Brad Hill called a mistrial, which allows the District Attorney's Office to retry Zapata.

Jurors deliberated about a week before declaring themselves deadlocked. Once Hill discharged the jurors, they left without making public comments.

Afterward, prosecutor Dennis Peterson said he will retry the case because he thinks he has solid evidence against Zapata, who remains in the Fresno County Jail without bail.

Zapata, 21, will return to Hill's court Sept. 12 for a hearing to set a new trial.

Testimony revealed that Zapata, driving a stolen car, was in a high-speed chase with Sanger police when he plowed into an unmarked sheriff's car at Adams and Maple avenues, south of Fresno.

The crash on May 28, 2003, killed deputy Joshua Clyde Lancaster, 27, and Zapata's 17-year-old girlfriend, Lorena Rodriguez, who was 14 weeks pregnant.

Before the fatal crash, Zapata had been in two other police pursuits, Peterson told jurors. "He knew what he was doing and he knew the consequences of his actions," Peterson said.

The crash ended a 14.5-mile, high-speed pursuit that police video recorded. During the trial, the tape was shown three times to jurors.

Zapata is charged with three counts of second-degree murder. If convicted, he faces as much as 45 years in prison, said Zapata's lawyer, Roberto Dulce of the public defender's office.

Dulce said his client isn't a triple murderer and had shown no malice toward the victims. Malice, or the conscious disregard for human life, is a key element to prove second-degree murder.

Malice was lacking, Dulce said, because Zapata was in love with his girlfriend and was eagerly awaiting the birth of their child. Dulce also told jurors that Zapata was high on methamphetamine \ "near toxic levels" when the fatal crash happened, so he was incapable of consciously knowing what he was doing.

Dulce said Zapata would be willing to plead guilty to manslaughter charges and "throw himself at the mercy of the court."

Dulce tried to explain his client's actions: "He was 19 years old when this happened. He thought he was invincible."

Testimony revealed that in the summer of 2002, Zapata had been in a police pursuit that resulted in crashing his vehicle. Zapata later pleaded guilty and was given probation, Peterson said.

On May 27, 2003, the night before the fatal crash, police chased Zapata again, but officers called off the pursuit because it was getting dangerous, Peterson said.

Sanger police were looking for Zapata because the car he was driving belonged to an acquaintance who reported it stolen. Testimony revealed that Sanger police officer Eric Grijalva started the pursuit when he recognized the stolen vehicle.

At the time of the fatal crash, Lancaster was investigating a string of robberies. Fresno County Sheriff Richard Pierce soon complained that Sanger police had not told the Sheriff's Department of the chase.

About a week after the fatal crash, Sanger Police Chief Thomas L. Klose responded that the accident might have been avoided if Sanger officers had been able to communicate with other agencies.

At the time, Sanger patrol cars were equipped with radios that allowed them to communicate only with each other, the Fire Department and the city's Public Works Department. The Sanger City Council later approved the purchase of new radios for the Police Department that allows officers to communicate with other agencies.