Mario Careaga found guilty of DUI manslaughter in 2010 crash that killed Miami Heat dancer Nancy Lopez-Ruiz
(Sun Sentinel) - A Fort Lauderdale insurance executive was found guilty Wednesday of two counts of DUI manslaughter in the 2010 death of Miami Heat dancer Nancy Lopez-Ruiz.
Mario Careaga, 46, faces 15 years in prison for driving drunk and crashing into the victim, 22, who had stopped her motorcycle on a gore along East Sunrise Boulevard at 9:38 p.m. on Sept. 10, 2010.
Careaga was immediately handcuffed after the verdict was read, and members of the victim's family sobbed in the gallery.
But the all-male jury's decision, reached after more than 10 hours of deliberation over two days, was quickly overshadowed by allegations made Tuesday after an alternate juror was dismissed from the case.
The alternate told defense lawyer David Bogenschutz that at least one juror had made disparaging remarks that reflected an anti-gay bias, which could have affected the outcome of the trial. Bogenschutz brought the allegations to the attention of Broward Circuit Judge Ilona Holmes on Tuesday afternoon.
Following the verdict Wednesday, Holmes brought each juror into the courtroom, one by one, to ask whether they heard or said anything disparaging about gays.
Careaga is gay, a fact the jury became aware of because one of the witnesses in the trial was Ray Stapleton, Careaga's partner of more than 20 years. Stapleton testified last week. Careaga took the stand on Monday.
During Careaga's testimony, one juror was accused of mocking the defendant's voice after he asked for water. The same juror was accused of using an expletive to describe Bogenschutz. The juror denied both accusations, saying the only thing he did while Careaga was testifying was clear his throat.
The courtroom was filled with friends, family and supporters of Careaga on one side and the family of the victim on the other. Both sides were quiet during the questioning of the jurors.
None of the jurors confirmed the alternate's claims, but Holmes decided to hold off on formally entering the jury's verdict until Thursday morning, after she holds a hearing on the defense's motion for a mistrial.
Careaga will remain free on a $10,000 bond at least until Holmes rules on the motion for a mistrial.
The victim's mother, Adela Lopez-Ruiz, clutched a figurine of an angel that was one of the last gifts she received from her daughter.
"Justice came for Nancy," she said later. "We trust the justice system, and we are pleased that justice was served. … I feel that Nancy's spiritual presence was here. I think she wanted to send a message through me to everyone that drinking and driving is a deadly combination, and the jury held this person accountable for what he did."
Careaga and Bogenschutz left the courtroom without speaking to media. Prosecutor Kristin MacKenzie also declined to comment.
Before the accident, Careaga and Stapleton admitted they were at a private party at Neiman Marcus at the Galleria mall in Fort Lauderdale, and that they drank alcohol. They also went to Mayor's jewelers in the same mall, where Careaga purchased a $10,000 Cartier watch.
But neither man said Careaga consumed enough alcohol to impair his judgment, and surveillance video showed Careaga walking with no difficulty as little as 20 minutes before the crash. Toxicology tests later showed his blood alcohol level at .24 percent, three times the legal limit.
Jurors were asked to choose between the tests and the testimony.
Careaga also claimed that as he was driving, he had focused his attention on a car that was driving erratically behind his Mercedes, and that he did not look in front of his car in time to see the victim's stopped motorcycle.
Lopez-Ruiz, a college student living in Plantation, had recently earned a spot on the Miami Heat dance team and was scheduled to start performing during games at the American Airlines Arena in October 2010.
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