Breck man gets 11 years in fatal hit-and-run
SAN DIEGO – A San Diego Superior Court judge has sentenced former Breckenridge resident Chris Merrick to 11 years in prison for hitting and killing a California Highway Patrol (CHiP) officer in October 2000.
Merrick, who was 20 at the time of the incident, had been drinking at a bar in Tijuana, Mexico before he and a passenger, James Smith, headed up Interstate 5 toward San Diego in the early morning hours.
According to police reports, 33-year-old CHiP officer Sean Nava was investigating the scene of another accident when Merrick struck him going about 80 mph. Nava was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital an hour later.
Merrick and Smith fled the scene and pulled over in a nearby neighborhood, where they were overheard arguing about what they might have struck. Smith was later released without charges.
Merrick’s vehicle, a Toyota 4Runner, suffered a smashed windshield, twisted fender and crumpled hood. Nava’s death occurred during Red Ribbon Week, which is held to educate people on the dangers of drinking and driving.
On May 2, following a two-week trial, jurors found Merrick guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and felony hit-and-run. Merrick had a blood alcohol level of .08, which is the minimum legal standard at which someone is considered to be intoxicated in California. Colorado’s legal standard is .10. Additionally, the legal drinking age in California is 21, and in Mexico is 18.
At Merrick’s April trial, prosecutors urged jurors to consider a second-degree murder conviction, which could have resulted in a life sentence. One of Merrick’s attorneys reminded jurors that a murder conviction would mean Merrick acted with conscious disregard for human life.
Merrick has been involved in several minor traffic incidents in the four years he has held a driver’s license. He also has been arrested for underage possession of alcohol. At the time of his arrest for Nava’s death, there was a warrant for his arrest in Grand County, Colo. for failing to appear on charges of underage possession of alcohol.
CHiP officers were not happy with the lesser conviction nor the sentence.
“Our feelings range from total disappointment to outright anger,” said CHiP public affairs officer Tom Kerns, who said those in law enforcement were hoping the judge would sentence Merrick to the maximum of 15 years. “Sean Nava had a family, he had a life, and here Mr. Merrick is going to be putting 11 years in prison – and it probably won’t be the entire 11 years. He’ll have another life when he gets out. This really makes a huge impact on us.”
Kerns cited an eerily similar incident in which Jerome Bates struck and killed CHiP officer Stephen Linen in the same area last August.
“They were both pedestrians, both accidents took place in the early morning, they were both hit by people drinking in Mexico, and the drivers were both underage,” Kerns said. “But Mr. Bates told the family he was sorry. And he pleaded guilty.”
The judge sentenced him to 10 years – one year less than Merrick.
“One of the things that surprised me was that the judge said Merrick showed some regret,” Kerns said. “He (Merrick) was crying at the end of the trial – not because he showing remorse or regret, but because he’s going to prison. It had nothing to do with regret or remorse.”
According to reports in the North County (Calif.) Times, widow Melanie Nava said the sentence was not what she had hoped for, but that she and her two children, Alexandria, 9, and Patrick, 6, would try to move on with their lives. Melanie Nava has an unlisted phone number and could not be reached.
Merrick was a 1998 Summit High School graduate who originally hoped to enroll in a Los Angeles-area college. Merrick’s parents, who live in Breckenridge, were unavailable for comment Monday.
The deaths have brought CHiP officers closer together, Kerns said.
But the problem continues. Just Sunday, two people were killed and three injured after a night of drinking in Rosarita, Mexico. They were driving 110 mph along Interstate 15 in San Diego County when they went over a 300-foot embankment.
“We were thinking, “You know what? That could have been another one of us,'” Kerns said. “It’s a tragedy all the way around. No one wins on this. Sean and Stephen will forever be in our hearts.”
Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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