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Steve Morrison probably never knew what hit him that April afternoon in 2008. After the 52-year-old swimming-pool company owner eased off the brakes of his green Saturn and headed south down Hillcroft across Westpark, a Nissan Frontier driven by a 28-year-old Salvadoran immigrant named Rosa Villegas-Vatres slammed into him, caving in his driver's side door — and his rib cage — and killing him instantly.
That Villegas-Vatres blew through the red light on Westpark is not in question. Several witnesses said she did and she also admitted as much. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Villegas-Vatres remained in her vehicle where a witness named Jonny Fuentes found her crying and saying she was in pain. She was also said to have been heard to express terror at the prospect of deportation, with good reason, as Villegas-Vatres has made some frightening enemies in her short life, people who just might retaliate against her or her family if she were returned to El Salvador.
She was transported to Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital, and her blood was drawn. The presence of alcohol or drugs was not detected. Somewhere along the line, it was discovered that she had no driver's license or insurance.
She would eventually spend about a month in detention while her bond was arranged and her immigration status was resolved. ICE discovered that Villegas-Vatres was the holder of a so-called T-visa, meaning that she had been a victim of human traffickers and had testified against them. ICE released her, but even ICE couldn't save her should she be convicted of a felony, stripped of her T-visa and deported.
Villegas-Vatres claimed at the scene that her brakes failed, but Fuentes said in the official crash report that he heard brakes "squicking" just before the collision. Villegas-Vatres also claimed to be traveling only 20 to 25 miles per hour at impact, right around half the posted speed for that section of Westpark.
Sharon Smith, Steve Morrison's sister, doubts that claim. "I have the autopsy report, and I believe that the kinds of internal injuries Steve had couldn't have been caused if she was only going 25 miles an hour." (Of two lawyers who spoke with the Houston Press for this article, one opined that Smith was right and the other said that she was wrong.) Nevertheless, there was no way to prove that Villegas-Vatres had been traveling any faster than she said she had, at least not until HPD conducted a more thorough crash investigation.
Still, Officer R.D. Davidson of the Houston Police Department had all he needed from the accident scene and witness statements, not to mention Villegas-Vatres's own statement about running the light, to charge her with negligent homicide, a felony. And since negligent homicide is a felony, Davidson didn't bother writing Villegas-Vatres a ticket for running the red light or any other offenses she may have committed.
Morrison's surviving family — two children and his brother Frank Morrison and sister Sharon Smith — wanted Villegas-Vatres to be punished for what they saw as a crime. There followed a long, brutal roller-coaster ride through the judicial system. The first setback came when not long after the accident, a judge dropped the case for lack of evidence. But then Harris County Assistant District Attorney Brent Mayr refiled the case and referred it to a grand jury, which indicted Villegas-Vatres on a charge of criminally negligent homicide, a state jail felony with a penalty of six months to two years imprisonment without the possibility of parole, or, if her car could be proven to have been a deadly weapon, two to ten years, also with no parole.
In April of 2009, she was rearrested and her bond was set at $30,000. Villegas-Vatres hired an attorney and in the meantime, Immigration and Customs Enforcement put a hold on her to establish her immigration status.
But Villegas-Vatres never was stripped of her T-visa or deported. Last October, a year and a half after the wreck, the felony charge against her was dismissed before going to trial. It's a new day in the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, and new District Attorney Patricia Lykos has ordered that dozens of negligent homicide cases filed under her predecessor be reviewed. Thus far, Villegas-Vatres has not received so much as a ticket in this case.
Few areas of criminal law are more subjective than car crashes, especially when intoxicants are not a factor. Just deciding which charges to file, or indeed if any need to be filed at all, is a very difficult decision, prosecutors say. Six weeks into her new position as Chief of the Harris County District Attorney's Vehicular Crimes Section, Catherine Evans is learning just how hard these cases can be. "While I've worked on these cases before and am familiar with them, I've certainly never worked with them as intensively as I am now," she says. "And they are very, very difficult cases both on a personal and emotional level, because you are dealing with heartbroken people, and on a legal level, because of their complexity."
Evans rattles off some of the complicating factors. "What were the ambient conditions? What was the weather like? The lighting, the equipment on the different vehicles if you had different vehicles involved. You're also looking at the behavior and the actions of the victim, the other driver in the case, because it's often a situation of two people making a series of bad choices or acts, so you need to have an understanding of what caused it or how those events contributed to the crash."