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Two Years After a Hit-And-Run Driver Killed a 4-Year-Old, There Is Little ‘Justice for Luz’

Friends, family, and neighbors of 4-year-old Luz Gonzalez marched to the 83rd Precinct two years ago demanding answers. Photo: Julianne Cuba

Two years after a hit-and-run driver fatally ran over 4-year-old Luz Gonzalez on a Brooklyn sidewalk, the borough's district attorney has announced a charge of "failure to exercise due care" — minor charges that don’t do enough to hold the driver accountable, according to an attorney.

On June 24, 2018, motorist Jeanette Maria backed out of an illegal parking lot, which the city later ordered to be shut down, outside a Bushwick laundromat, and then accelerated into Gonzalez and her mother on the sidewalk, killing the little girl and injuring her mom. The horrific incident was captured on video, and clearly shows Maria’s car bumping up and down as it rolls over Gonzalez, according to attorney Steve Vaccaro.

That evidence should have been enough to charge Maria with a fatal hit-and-run because any reasonable person should have had “cause to know” that she ran over someone — the legal standard for charging such cases, Vaccaro said.

“The up-and-down movement of the vehicle as she crushed the toddler on the sidewalk was ‘cause to know’ she had struck someone," Vaccaro said. “Drivers can always claim (and usually do) that they thought it was a pothole, curb or debris when they run their victim over. The law should be applied so that the driver is required to stop their vehicle, get out and look in these circumstances.” Vaccaro added that “the response of the Brooklyn DA in this case to the Gonzalez family, in essence, is: ‘Your daughter might as well have been a pile of garbage on the street. We are not going to require the driver to treat her any differently than if she was one.’"

Police initially stopped Maria — who was behind the wheel of a 2018 Nissan Rogue, which Streetsblog reported at the time is equipped with rearview cameras — a few blocks from the scene, but let her go.

A spokesman for District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said the NYPD conducted a reenactment using 3D video, spoke with all known witnesses, and reviewed surveillance video. Maria told cops that she was “unaware she had struck someone," and police ultimately concluded there was no criminality, according to the DA’s office.

The District Attorney’s office then conducted its own investigation using the evidence the NYPD examined, and determined that Maria failed to exercise due care, but could not have known she had run over Gonzalez. The spokesman said Maria was sober, had a valid license, cooperated fully with investigators, and willingly turned over her phone, which showed there was no activity at the time of the crash. Maria drove to her parents house nearby after leaving the laundromat to go to a family barbecue, the spokesman said.

“The death of Luz Gonzalez was an unspeakable tragedy and the district attorney promised her mother that the investigation into the terrible loss she suffered would be thorough and complete," the spokesman said. "All potential charges were then considered. The driver’s behavior after the incident was inconsistent with a person aware that she just struck a child, which is the legal requirement for a leaving the scene charge. The facts also did not legally support a manslaughter or negligent-homicide charge.”

The district attorney therefore concluded that “the only provable a failure to exercise due care, and the decision to move forward with charging the driver was made earlier this year in consultation with the family lawyers," the spokesman continued. "We believe that we can establish that Luz’s death could have been avoided had the driver exercised due care.”

For weeks after Gonzalez was killed, her family, friends, and neighbors marched through the streets of Bushwick, chanting “Justice for Luz” in Spanish and waving Mexican flags. Gonzalez and her parents are natives of Mexico, and it's where the 4-year-old’s body was flown alone to be buried.

On July 5, 2018 — two weeks after the fatal incident — one march ended at the 83rd Precinct, where demonstrators demanded answers from police about why Maria was still walking free, despite fleeing the scene. Some questioned authorities about social-media claims alleging that Maria’s brother is a police officer who had threatened to call immigration officials on the Mexican family if they pressed charges.

Neither police or the District Attorney's office ever addressed the rumors, but a cop told the crowd at the July 5 demonstration that such information would never have affected the investigation.

“After it happened I met with [Gonzalez’s mom] with others that spoke Spanish. She came asking for help, and I said whatever you need, we are here to help,” Sgt. Anna Serrano said at the time, according to the Brooklyn Paper. “I told her, ‘You are in a safe place here. The NYPD policy is we do not enforce immigration laws.’ ”

Gonzalez is one of the hundreds of victims whose killer drivers have otherwise been let off the hook for fatal hit-and-run crashes.

A Streetsblog investigation in September showed that, out of the 5,699 hit-and-run crashes involving injury in 2018, only 492 people were arrested — a rate of less than 9 percent. From June 2018 through June 2019, cops arrested 30 hit-and-run drivers who had killed or critically injured 51 people. But even then, an arrest doesn’t always mean a conviction.

Several attorneys and legal experts spoke with Streetsblog about the difficulty of prosecuting fatal hit-and-run cases, mostly because a strict state law ties prosecutors hands. Prosecutors rely on the New York State statute, known as VTL 600, in order to charge drivers for leaving the scene of an “accident.” The law itself suggests that a driver can only be charged with fleeing the scene if he or she leaves “knowing, or having cause to know, that” he or she injured someone else. As a result, prosecutors believe they must prove that the driver knew he or she hit someone.

“The evidence has to point that you knew, or should have known, you struck a person, and that’s what the investigation is designed to determine,” said Jon Shane, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It’s physical evidence, witness statements, it’s video.”

Gonzalez's family is also pursuing a civil case against Maria, the city, and the laundromat outside of which Gonzalez was killed.

Maria, whose license has since been revoked by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, is scheduled to be arraigned in September, according to the DA.

The Gonzalez family lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

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