The family of one of three victims killed by a 28-year-old man trying to outrun sheriff's deputies in a stolen car called the justice system "a sham" and "a joke" Monday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.
Francisco Martinez was sentenced to 29 years and six months in prison and likely will serve half that, a prosecutor said.
"That's only nine years per person you killed," said Colleen Jackson, mother of victim Steven Jackson, 53, of Modesto.
The district attorney's office dropped three murder charges in exchange for Martinez's no-contest pleas to three counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, three counts of evading a police officer causing death and two other felonies. Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne said convincing 12 jurors Martinez was guilty of murder would have been "difficult."
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Judge Ricardo Córdova told Martinez he would have faced a maximum of seven years in prison if he had pulled over when he heard the deputies' sirens.
"And I doubt you would have gotten that," Córdova said.
The victims' families are suing the county and the Sheriff's Department for an undisclosed amount of money, saying deputies improperly chased Martinez through the streets of north Modesto.
About 300 people are killed each year in the United States in police chase accidents, and nearly a third are innocent victims, according to a study by Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center of Seattle, which evaluated National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports from 1994 to 2002.
According to Stanislaus County sheriff's deputies:
On Dec. 9, 2007, at 2:18 p.m., someone reported two men suspiciously dropping off one car and picking up another on Bangs Avenue near North Star Way in north Modesto.
Minutes later, two deputies in patrol cars saw the white Mitsubishi sport utility vehicle described in the area where suspicious activity had been reported. They chased the vehicle east on Claribel Road toward Riverbank.
Martinez's erratic driving in heavy traffic prompted the deputies to call off the chase within about 40 seconds, authorities said at the time, but the fatal accident had just occurred about a half-mile ahead of the deputies' cars.
Authorities said Martinez hit speeds up to 70 mph in a congested portion of Claribel, a two-lane road. They said Martinez was trying to pass a car when he hit the car carrying Jackson and Heather Miller head-on. Family members said the two were out Christmas shopping.Miller, 40, of San Leandro died in the car with Jackson.
Her sister brought a Bible to give to Martinez. "I know she would have forgiven you today," Gina Ross said of her sister. "I know you are not a vicious murderer. If you could take it back, I have no doubt you would do it in a minute."
Martinez nodded as Ross quoted from 1 Corinthians: "Love never fails." He responded with verses of his own.
Martinez read a statement to the court. He said the pain and guilt of killing his passenger and cousin Brandon Ellis, 20, of Riverbank, as well as Miller and Jackson had "torn him apart." Martinez said he was a different person because of his addiction to methamphetamine.
"That drug has no mercy," he said.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.