A Sunnyvale woman accused of causing a fatal vehicle accident on Highway 108 in April 2015 returned to the Tuolumne County Jail from prison custody this week to await scheduling for a retrial.
The second degree murder and driving while under the influence causing great bodily injury conviction of Brenda Estefania Barrera, 28, was reversed by the Fifth District Court of Appeal in January.
The appeals court found a Tuolumne County Superior Court Judge wrongly denied a full hearing to determine the validity of blood test results which showed the presence of an intoxicant in Barrera’s blood during the crash. THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, was found to be in her system, but some of her blood tests were outside an acceptable margin of error to determine if she was under the influence during the crash.
Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Andrea Benson said Barrera was booked into the custody of the Tuolumne County Jail at approximately 10:48 a.m. on Monday.
Barrera was incarcerated at Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. Tuolumne County Superior Court Judge Donald Segerstrom, who presided over Barrera’s trial, sentenced her to 28 years to life in prison on May 20, 2016.
Barrera appeared in Department 1 of the court at 1:30 p.m. on Monday for a remittitur hearing, which transferred the case from the Fifth District Court of Appeal back to Tuolumne County Superior Court.
Barrera’s public defender, Hallie Gorman, said Wednesday the hearing was “brief” and brought the case back to where it started.
Gorman declined to provide additional comment pending an upcoming trial-setting conference set for 1:30 p.m. Monday, April 22, in Department 1 of the court.
Gorman told The Union Democrat in January that “words cannot express our excitement” for the expected retrial. During the six-day trial in 2016, Deputy Public Defender Dana Gross also represented Barrera.
Assistant District Attorney Eric Hovatter was unavailable, an employee of the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office said.
According to the original criminal complaint filed against Barrera on April 23, 2015, she is charged with murder, vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, driving under the influence of a drug causing injury, and misdemeanor driving when privilege is suspended or revoked, causing injury.
Prior to her first trial, Barrera admitted the misdemeanor, according to a report from the Fifth Appellate District.
She had two prior convictions, in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, of driving on a suspended license in 2014, according to the criminal complaint.
She was sentenced to serve 15 years to life for second degree murder and an additional 13 years for great bodily injury enhancements. A two-year sentence for driving under the influence and causing injury was to be served concurrent to her primary sentence, and she was acquitted by a jury on the charge of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
She was brought into the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on May 24, 2016, according to the CDCR inmate locator.
Barrera is accused of killing Maxsimiano Aldana, 78, of Escalon, and sending four others to the hospital with major injuries while driving under the influence westbound on Highway 108 near J-59 in April 2015.
Barrera, then 24, was in 2005 Mercedes Kompressor about 10 a.m. on April 21, 2015, and was seen by multiple witnesses to have been swerving in the road, almost hitting other vehicles. She drifted into the eastbound lane about a mile from J59 and collided with a 2005 Chevy Malibu driven by Aldana.
Aldana was pronounced dead at the scene, and three passengers — his 69-year-old wife and a couple in their 80s — were taken by helicopter to a Modesto hospital with broken bones. A 21-year-old passenger in Barrera’s car was also flown to a Modesto hospital for treatment of major injuries.
Barrera told an investigating CHP officer she has been awake for 18 hours before the accident. She visited her son in Sunnyvale after 4 p.m. on April 20 and then went to Black Oak Casino in Tuolumne, arriving there about 4 a.m. the next day, she said. The accident occurred before 10 a.m.
Barrera had a suspended license for a prior DUI conviction in 2014 and previously signed an advisement that warned she could be charged with murder if she killed someone while driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs or both.
The crux of the conviction reversal came from testimony given at trial by John Lopez, a criminalist from the Department of Justice, who analyzed blood drawn from Barrera at 12:40 p.m. on the day of the accident.
Lopez said he believed Barrera had a “high quantity of THC” in her blood at the time of the accident. The appeals court said statements related to the quantity of THC in Barrera’s blood were wrongfully allowed by the trial court because there was no hearing to determine whether the test results were valid, according to the appeals court opinion.
“In the face of a laboratory report stating in effect that quantity values for levels of THC in the blood were inaccurate, could not be reproduced, and should not be reported, Lopez never explained how and why the testing procedures were nonetheless correct,” the document said.