TEXAS CITY — A jury on Wednesday partially granted the prosecution’s request to “send a message” about the death of an 11-year-old girl run over by a big rig at a Texas City school bus stop, sentencing a truck driver to four years in a state penitentiary.
Hector Pena, 47, had been charged with manslaughter in the Sept. 24, 2012 death of Christina Marie Lopez. He was instead found guilty of the lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide.
The jury also found that Pena’s 17,000-pound truck, which did not have a trailer attached, should be considered a deadly weapon. Pena, who does not have a prior criminal history, could have received probation or been sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
Pena’s attorneys filed a notice to appeal.
“We respect the jury’s decision, but we think they got it wrong,” defense attorney Jeth Jones said. “We believe the evidence is undisputed that the child was in the street, and that the front of the vehicle never hit her. It was a tragic accident.”
Lopez, a sixth-grader at Levi Fry Intermediate School, was waiting at an unmarked bus stop at 30th Avenue North and 26th Street shortly before being hit by the truck.
There were no sidewalks at the bus stop, and testimony differed on whether Lopez was on the grass or on the roadway when she was struck.
Prosecutors said Pena was late for work as he drove east on 30th Avenue and turned right onto 26th Street, and could have made the decision to turn onto a wider roadway farther away from his house.
Pena told investigators he saw Lopez before making the turn but lost sight of her.
His attorneys contend that evidence proves the front bumper and tire of the big rig did not strike Lopez, and that something caused the girl to move into the roadway after the truck had begun passing her.
“He never possessed the mindset that he could hit her” and made a proper right turn, Jones said.
Lopez’s parents were awarded more than $6 million in October after filing a lawsuit that accused Pena and his former employer, Altom Transport, of negligence.
After the jury convicted Pena of criminally negligent homicide Wednesday, Manuel and Nina Lopez testified about the day their daughter died and their lives since then.
The Lopezes, who lived next door to Pena and his family before the fatal collision, said a prison sentence would give Pena a “taste” of the loss they have felt since their daughter’s death.
“I have to wake up every day without my kid,” Manuel Lopez said. “Why should he be able to wake up every day to his kids?”
Christina Marie Lopez was the “light of the family,” and Nina Lopez described her daughter as a largehearted girl who dreamed of being a veterinarian.
Nina Lopez said her daughter’s death led to emotional turmoil in her family.
She accused Pena of showing no remorse and of not doing enough to help Christina Marie Lopez after the sixth-grader was hit by the vehicle.
“Like some animal in the street, my daughter died by herself,” Nina Lopez said.
Pena’s relatives took the stand to ask for probation and a lenient sentence, saying that Pena was the family’s sole breadwinner.
Speaking through an interpreter, Pena’s wife said her son just graduated from high school and would be unable to attend college without his father’s support.
Norma Pena said she prayed for Christina Marie Lopez every day.
“It has been a tragedy, but we are also a family,” she said.
Hector Pena took the witness stand for the first time in the criminal trial and apologized to Lopez’s relatives in court.
However, he said a prison sentence would not bring Christina Marie Lopez back.
“If I know the one way to get Christina back, I would give my life,” Pena said.
Galveston County Assistant District Attorney Bill Reed asked the jury of six men and six women to sentence Pena to the maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, and to “send a message” that Pena’s choices directly caused the death of an 11-year-old girl.
Jurors deliberated for about 30 minutes before delivering the sentence of four years.
After Pena tearfully embraced his family, he was taken into custody and placed in handcuffs.
Pena is scheduled to appear again in court today for a hearing that will set his bond pending appeal, and to hear what prosecutors call “victim impact statements” from relatives of Christina Marie Lopez.