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Lawyers make opening statements in woman’s murder trial in H.B. crash that killed 3 Las Vegas teens

Bani Duarte, 29, faces three counts of murder and one count of driving under the influence causing injury. She has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
(File Photo)

Parents of victims of a road crash that killed three Las Vegas teenagers in Huntington Beach last year dabbed their eyes Wednesday as lawyers made opening statements in the trial of the woman charged in the teens’ deaths.

Bani Duarte, 29, of San Clemente faces three counts of murder and one count of driving under the influence causing injury, as well as a sentencing enhancement allegation of inflicting great bodily injury. She has pleaded not guilty to all charges, according to Orange County Superior Court records.

If convicted, she could be sentenced to 51 years to life in state prison, according to prosecutors.

“You are brought to this courtroom because of the choices Ms. Duarte made,” said Deputy District Attorney Daniel Feldman. “For the things she knew, what she understood, what she ignored, what she did, who she killed and who she hurt.”

Feldman argued that Duarte’s prior DUI arrest, a jail phone call, and photos and comments on the social media app Instagram demonstrated that she was aware of the consequences of driving under the influence of alcohol.

Duarte’s attorney, Justin Glenn, said, “I don’t disagree with most of what Mr. Feldman said.”

“Ms. Duarte broke the law; she made a stupid decision,” Glenn said. He didn’t contest that Duarte had been drinking, that she was driving her vehicle, that the four teens in the other car had been obeying all traffic laws and that three of them died as a result of the crash.

“What you are not going to hear is that Ms. Duarte was ever given a Watson advisement,” Glenn said, referring to a statement signed when a person is convicted of DUI that affirms that driving under the influence can result in death. It can be used against the person if he or she is accused in a future DUI case.

“And that’s what matters,” Glenn said. “It is the defense’s position that when it’s all said and done, Mr. Feldman is going to come up short. He is not going to be able to prove all the elements of a murder.”

Shortly after 1 a.m. March 29, 2018, a Toyota Corolla containing the teenagers — who were in Huntington Beach for spring break — was struck by a Hyundai Sonata while stopped at a red light at Pacific Coast Highway and Magnolia Street. The Toyota was pushed into a pole and caught fire.

Brooke Hawley, 17, Dylan Mack, 18, and A.J. Rossi, 17, were killed. A fourth occupant, Alexis Vargas, was severely injured.

Duarte was traveling 79 mph on impact, authorities said. Information collected from the Sonata’s computer system indicated the brakes were never engaged in the five seconds before the crash.

One parent got up and left the Santa Ana courtroom as Huntington Beach police Det. Sean McDonough described his attempts to rescue Brooke, who was trapped in the driver’s seat as the Corolla caught fire.

McDonough said he smashed the window with a flashlight but couldn’t reach her, and damage to the side of the car made the doors inoperable.

Heat and smoke forced him to retreat as flames began to engulf the vehicle, he said.

Duarte was driving from Baja Sharkeez in Newport Beach, according to law enforcement reports. After the crash, she told officers she was headed home to San Clemente, according to police body camera footage shown in court Wednesday.

When asked if she knew where she was, Duarte said Newport Beach, when, in fact, the crash had occurred in Huntington Beach, in the opposite direction of San Clemente.

During questioning, Duarte said she wasn’t driving the Hyundai, didn’t answer some questions and repeatedly asked officers if they would drive her home.

Huntington Beach police alleged in a document attached to an arrest warrant that Duarte’s blood-alcohol level an hour after the crash was 0.28% — more than three times the legal limit.

Orange County sheriff’s Deputy Jeremy Johnson testified that he arrested Duarte in San Clemente in 2016 on suspicion of DUI. After her arrest, Duarte made a jailhouse phone call to a friend who at one point told her, “I asked you not to,” according to audio of the call.

“I know I shouldn’t have,” Duarte responded. “I’ve seen like accidents. … It was just a stupid decision ... to do that. I honestly wanted to take an Uber there.”

Johnson testified that when he stopped her, Duarte cried and pleaded to be let go on account of her four children. Duarte was cited, taken to the police station and later released after a sobering-out period, Johnson said.

The Sheriff’s Department inadvertently didn’t send its report of the arrest to the Orange County district attorney’s office, and charges were never filed in the case.

Duarte’s trial continues Thursday.

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