James Marcelin had been partying all day when he made the decision to drive three of his friends to Haines City.
While traveling at least 20 MPH over the speed limit, Marcelin veered off the roadway and crashed head-on into a tree. The collision killed 19-year-old Andrew Valdez and critically injured Jose Almanzar and James Richards.
After about an hour and 20 minutes of deliberation, a jury convicted 27-year-old Marcelin Thursday of DUI manslaughter, vehicular homicide, two counts of DUI with serious bodily injury, two counts of reckless driving resulting in serious bodily injury, three counts of driving while license suspended or revoked, and one count each of grand theft of a motor vehicle and burglary of a conveyance.
Marcelin is facing a maximum of 30 years in prison for the DUI manslaughter. His sentencing has not yet been scheduled.
Assistant State Attorney Amy Smith walked jurors through the events of that led up to the fatal crash on April 26, 2015.
Eleven days prior to the incident, Marcelin stole a 2007 Mazda minivan from Orlando. Marcelin drove the van to a party in Winter Haven at about 4 p.m. on April, 26, where he and the victims drank alcohol, smoked marijuana and did drugs.
They went to a second party in Orlando, where they continued to drink and smoke. When they ran out of marijuana, Marcelin got behind the wheel of the van and attempted to drive Valdez, Almanzar, and Richards to another party in Haines City.
About 11:15 p.m., Marcelin was driving on Lake Marion Creek Road in Haines City, which has multiple 90 degree turns. As he came out of a turn, Marcelin drifted off the road way and lost control, braking for 88 feet before colliding with the tree at 65 MPH.
Valdez was thrown from the front passenger seat and into the windshield, where he was entrapped. He lost consciousness and never regained it.
Valdez died on May 14, 2015.
Almanzar had a broken spine and a brain bleed. Richards had a cracked skull, which required 22 staples.
Both men were unconscious after the collision.
Marcelin had his right leg broken in two spots and a broken left arm, broken pelvis, sternum, and ribs. Multiple witnesses saw him in the driver’s seat and said he was the only occupant still conscious.
While witnesses called 911, Marcelin pulled himself out of the vehicle and to the ground, where he stayed until paramedics and law enforcement arrived.
In court, Marcelin took the stand and admitted he drank alcohol and did drugs before getting in the minivan. He said he could not remember if he was the one who drove it.
The defense claimed that Almanzar was the driver and that Marcelin’s injuries were consistent with being in the passenger seat, arguing that Almanzar got away with homicide.
But Smith reminded jurors that witnesses on scene testified that the driver of the minivan clearly had a broken arm and broken leg – he also pulled himself out of the seat he was trapped in. None of the other victims had those injuries, and all but Marcelin were unconscious.
She said the argument that Almanzar got away with homicide is not supported by any of the facts in this case.
“Just because an attorney says it doesn’t make it so,” Smith said in her closing arguments. “It has to be supported by the evidence.”
She added that Almanzar could not have been the driver because he has hundreds of pages of medical records that say he had a broken spine, was in a coma, and was unable to speak from the moment of impact.
“The defense is asking you to disregard all of the evidence and somehow believe these men got switched. To speculate that Almanzar was the driver is not a part of this case. It is not supported by the facts,” Smith said.
“This is not complicated. All of the testimony is consistent,” she said. “When you step back and apply some common sense, it’s very clear there’s not some crazy oddity or mix-up. It’s that the defendant is guilty.”