BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — A Bakersfield man has been sentenced for murder, accused of being drunk behind the wheel of a boat that caused a fatal crash.
The Kern County District Attorney's office said this is the first case of its kind in the nation. Justin Ennis, 25, got a sentence of 15 years to life. District Attorney Lisa Green said, "There are no other convictions of this type known in the nation," in a press release.
The crash was in August 2010, and took the life of Sal Rodriguez. The young father-to-be was on his boat at the Buena Vista Lake recreation area when Ennis' boat hit him.
"Mr. Ennis spent the day drinking, and one hour after the collision he was a .12 blood alcohol," Deputy District Attorney David Wolf said. "In addition, he had marijuana in his system."
Wolf said Rodriguez, on the other hand, was at the lake celebrating a child's birthday. Rodriguez had an adult friend and four children on his boat. Wolf said Rodriguez had stopped to pick up a child and a large inner tube.
"The three girls were in front as the defendant's boat was crashing toward the front of the boat," Wolf described. He said there were several heroes that day. The first was the friend with Rodriguez, who saw the other boat roaring toward them.
"He threw his son on the deck of the boat, and dove on top of him," Wolf said. He said that saved the child, and the friend ended up with a large bruise.
Prosecutors said as Ennis' boat plowed toward him, Rodriguez tried to start up his boat and steer it away from the impact.
"He put his own life at risk," Wolf said. "The last thing (Rodriguez) saw was the bow of the defendant's boat crushing his head between the bow of the defendant's boat and his windshield."
Ennis was found guilty of second-degree murder, vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, and negligent use of a watercraft while under the influence.
In court on Tuesday, the judge said he had letters supporting Ennis and many from the victim's family. Rodriguez's widow told the court her husband was a sweet and loving man, and the couple was so excited to be expecting their first child in a couple months.
"I ask that you sentence Mr. Ennis to the maximum time allowed in this case," Mia Rodriguez said.
Ennis had a letter to read to the court, but he was so emotional he couldn't get the words out. Defense attorney Michael Lukehart said Ennis is truly remorseful.
"My client is very sorry that this happened, and he knows the consequences," Lukehart said.
But, knowing the consequences is a strong point made by prosecutors in this case.
"What was significant about this case was what the defendant knew when he started the boat at the end of the lake," prosecutor Wolf said. He noted in court that Ennis had five felony convictions by the time he was 25.
In 2008, Ennis was convicted in a case where a woman died when she suffocated after being tied up and gagged with duct tape in a southwest Bakersfield home. He originally faced a second-degree murder charge but then pleaded no contest to felony assault. Ennis served two years in prison for that case.
Ennis and a co-defendant had allegedly smoked marijuana and drank margaritas after finding the woman dead.
The prosecutor said Ennis also had a drunk-driving conviction in Marin County, and at that time he was clearly told of the dangers of drinking and driving. Wolf said it's common sense that danger extends to operating a boat.
"Any idiot would know they shouldn't be out there driving a car while they're drunk or driving a boat while they're under the influence," Wolf said. "If they do, they would be prosecuted for murder."
The defense attorney said boating while drinking is different.
"For example, a lot of people ride around in boats drinking and it's not illegal. Try that in a car," Lukehart said. "It's a different culture, so we'll see how the appellate court deals with that."
The prosecution team gave high marks to the Kern County park rangers who helped with the investigation, and Wolf said two of those officers were also heroes on the day of the crash. One tried to help the victim, the other stopped Ennis.
Wolf also called a young girl on Rodriguez's boat a hero. The child tried to grab a cellphone to call for help. Wolf said Ennis didn't try to help the family get back to shore after their boat was rammed, and didn't try to help the victim.
"We ask that this stop today," Ramirez' sister-in-law said. Maria Lopez was with the prosecution team after the sentencing, and she had a message for other boaters. "If you decide to consume a drink, decide not to drive."
Wolf also said he hopes this case drives home a message.
"I hope that the public will learn from this tragedy," Wolf said. "I hope this will deter someone in the future, so we don't have this tragedy repeated. And, I think that's what the family wanted."