A husband and wife pleaded no contest Thursday in connection with a hit-and-run crash that killed a USC student and severely injured another as they walked home last year from a fraternity party near campus.
The incident generated outrage after witnesses reported seeing a passenger in the couple's car hauling the body of the injured student out of the vehicle's broken windshield and dumping him onto the sidewalk before the car sped off.
Authorities alleged that the couple's sedan ran a red light and struck Adrianna Bachan and Marcus Garfinkle in a crosswalk near campus on March 29. Bachan, 18, died from massive head injuries. Garfinkle was carried about 300 feet down the street on the hood of the car but survived with multiple injuries, including two broken legs.
Television news footage of Bachan's grief-stricken mother, Carmen, begging the public to help identify the motorists drew an outpouring of support.
Hundreds of tips poured in to detectives, including one identifying the driver as Claudia Cabrera of South Los Angeles. Two weeks after Cabrera was arrested, her husband, Josue Luna, was caught as he attempted to cross back into the U.S. from Mexico. Police concluded that Cabrera, 31, had been driving Luna, 33, and their infant home when she struck the students at Jefferson Boulevard and Hoover Street.
On Thursday, Carmen Bachan said she was surprised by the plea but relieved that the family would be spared the anguish of a trial. Speaking to reporters at Griffith Park, where her daughter enjoyed riding ponies as a little girl, she criticized the maximum possible sentence -- seven years in prison for Luna and eight for Cabrera.
"If your daughter had been killed like that, is eight years enough? Is seven years enough? No, I don't think it is," Bachan said. "They never apologized. Never. Ever."
Luna's attorney, Jeffrey S. Benice, said the plea showed that the couple took responsibility for their actions, which had destroyed their lives. Neither Cabrera, a preschool teacher, nor Luna, a contractor, had criminal records, Benice said, and the couple had hoped to resolve the case earlier but could not agree on a deal with prosecutors.
"They feel terrible, as any normal human being would," he said. "Their lives have been tragically altered, and they take responsibility for that."
The couple entered pleas to a felony count of hit-and-run and inflicting great bodily injury just before their trial was to begin in downtown Los Angeles. Cabrera also pleaded to a misdemeanor count of vehicular manslaughter. A no-contest plea has the same effect in criminal court as a guilty plea. The couple face at least three years in prison when they are sentenced May 24, Benice said.
A USC student testified at a preliminary hearing last year that he heard a screech of tires near campus and saw a body wedged into a car's broken windshield. Thomas Buchte said he saw a passenger get out and struggle to pull the body out as someone helped from inside the vehicle.
"There was a swift motion and the body was dumped on the sidewalk," Buchte testified. He said he found Garfinkle soaked in blood and pleading for help.
Garfinkle testified that he underwent three surgeries following the crash and showed the court large scars on his stomach, arms and legs. He said he still finds shards of glass from the windshield in his flesh.