A Nipomo man who had two prior DUIs when he crashed head-on into a car, killing an 82-year-old woman, was found guilty by a San Luis Obispo County jury Monday of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.

But on a more serious charge of second-degree murder, the jury could not agree whether Edgar Morales, who has been on trial in San Luis Obispo Superior Court since mid-November, had the “implied malice” required for a murder conviction.

In addition to the charge of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, the jury also found Morales guilty of driving under the influence causing great bodily injury or death, and driving on a suspended license, as well as several sentencing enhancements related to his prior DUI convictions.

It is unclear if county prosecutors intend to re-try the murder charge; a hearing is scheduled for Dec. 29 to determine how the case will proceed.

A representative from the county District Attorney’s Office could not immediately be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

Raymond Allen, Morales’ defense attorney, explained following Monday’s verdict that even though his client avoided a murder conviction, the charge of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated — which usually has a maximum sentence of 10 years — carries the same 15-years-to-life sentence due to Morales’ priors.

Edgar Saul Rojas Morales

Edgar Saul Rojas Morales

Including the sentencing enhancements, Allen said Morales faces a minimum of 17 years to life in prison when he’s sentenced. A sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled.

Allen said the jury split 11-1 on the murder charge, though he did not know which direction the majority leaned. The jury had deliberated for a little more than two days when it sent a note to Judge Jesse Marino at 11:55 a.m. Monday saying they were unable to reach a unanimous decision on the murder count.

“They worked very hard and tried to come away with a just verdict,” Allen said of the jury.

Testimony given in the case showed that Morales’ blood alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit to drive when he collided with the car carrying two people heading home from a quinceañera.

Maria Medina of Santa Maria was pronounced dead at the scene on Thompson Road at about 11 p.m. Dec. 1, 2018. Medina’s daughter was injured in the crash.

Morales, who was driving on a suspended license at the time, faced the charge of second-degree murder for Medina’s death due to his prior criminal history and his past acknowledgment, in what’s called a Watson advisement, that he could be charged with murder should he ever drink and drive again and someone dies as a result.

To find him guilty of the murder, however, the jury needed to decide that he acted with “implied malice,” or that he caused a death while committing an act that’s dangerous to human life, that he knew the act was dangerous to human life, and that Morales deliberated and acted with conscious disregard for human life.

Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, on the other hand, is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice aforethought, in the driving of a vehicle, where the driving was under the influence, and the killing was either the result of an unlawful act, like a traffic violation.

The verdict is the second time within a week that a San Luis Obispo County jury could not agree on an “implied malice” murder conviction in a DUI-related murder trial.

On Thursday, jurors found Chelsea AnnMarie Stiles guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter after splitting 11-1 on the murder count for a December 2019 crash that killed another motorist.

A Violent Crash on Thompson Road

At a preliminary hearing in May 2019, Maricela Marquez, Medina’s daughter, testified she was driving her mother home in a 2006 BMW X5 southbound on Thompson Road after they both attended a family celebration at St. Joseph’s Parish.

Marquez testified that the BMW was approaching East Knotts Street at about 10:30 p.m. when Marquez said she saw the headlights of Morales’ black Honda Accord coming straight at them in the dark in what appeared to be their southbound lane.

“I was talking to my mom about the party, and I saw the lights,” she said. “I said, ‘This pendejo’s going to crash.’”

She said a roughly 4-foot embankment prevented her from swerving right off the road, so she swerved left toward the northbound lane to avoid getting hit, but the two vehicles collided at both cars’ front passenger sides, crushing Medina’s legs. Both vehicles came to rest in the roadway.

Marquez missed the brunt of the impact and only suffered minor injuries to her chest and ankle. Medina, however, died at the scene after emergency crews extricated her from the car.

CHP Officer Rachelle Fouts testified at that hearing that an empty Corona beer bottle was found on or near the driver’s seat of Morales’ Honda.

Fouts, who was the prosecution’s main investigator in the case, testified that Morales had two prior DUI convictions, and that he had sustained a brain injury requiring three weeks of hospitalization when he fractured his skull in April 2018 after falling from a second-floor balcony while drinking.

Fouts testified that Morales told her he had spent the night at a quinceañera himself with a friend and consumed about four 12-ounce beers over about two hours. There was some disagreement with the hosts of the party, and the two left to go to the friend’s house.

The friend gave Morales coffee and told him not to drive, according to Fouts’ testimony.

“I asked him, ‘Do you think you should have been out there driving?’” Fouts recalled of their interview. “He said ‘no.’”

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