In a case originally charged as manslaughter, an Ector County jury on Monday sentenced a Midland man to 75 years in the state penitentiary for running over an Odessa woman with his pickup.
Isaac Soria Lopez, 21, who was convicted of murder Friday in the death of 39-year-old Melissa Gonzales Bustamante, will be required to serve at least 30 years before he is eligible for release, prosecutors said. The jury found that Lopez intentionally ran over and killed Bustamante as he left a party at her house in May 2008.
Bustamante’s daughter, Emily Zorrilla, who witnessed her mother’s death and testified for the state, said as she left the courthouse that she was “very satisfied” with the jury’s punishment.
“I just feel that justice has truly been served and I finally have some closure,” Zorrilla said. “I’m ready to move forward with my life.”
Lopez and a throng of his supporters were shocked by the length of the sentence, and a few women seated just behind Lopez hurried out of the courtroom and could be heard wailing down the hall.
“We were surprised by the verdict and surprised by the time he received,” Lopez’s defense attorney David G. Rogers of Midland said. “He plans to appeal.”
The jury deliberated more than two hours before reaching its decision. Lopez also was convicted of failure to stop and render aid and evading arrest, for which he was sentenced to five and 10 years respectively, sentences set to run concurrently with the 75-year prison term.
The sentence capped a well-attended, six-day trial that featured emotional testimony and graphic descriptions of Bustamante’s death. Prosecutors called several eyewitnesses, many of whom were related to Bustamante, in an effort to reconstruct the party at Bustamante’s house and at least two fistfights that precipitated the fatal hit-and-run.
Many of the witnesses were inebriated to some degree the night of Bustamante’s death, and they offered differing accounts of Lopez’s actions. The defense sought to capitalize on the inconsistencies, but its central contention was that Bustamante’s death was a tragic accident.
Lopez testified that he left the party after he and his friend Nicodemus Alvarado were accused of stealing $300 during a dice game. Alvarado was stabbed three times during a fight, and Lopez maintained that he sped away from the party in order to rush his friend to the hospital.
Several witnesses, however, recalled that Lopez intentionally backed his pickup into a crowd of people and shouted a profanity before doing so.
With the guilt phase out of the way, prosecutors on Monday presented evidence that portrayed Lopez as an unrestrained street fighter and gang member, who for years has flaunted law enforcement officials and society’s efforts to rehabilitate him.
“I’ve been breaking the law for quite a while already,” Lopez acknowledged during a cross-examination in which he appeared to lose his composure. Lopez said he has been in solitary confinement for about six months in the Ector County Detention Center because of a fight.
Assistant District Attorney Leonard Bruce, in closing arguments Monday, called Lopez “a dangerous animal who cannot live in our community.”
Jurors viewed two video recordings of Lopez fighting: one in which he had a confrontation with Bustamante’s survivors at Medical Center Hospital and a second in which a shirtless Lopez fights a young man to a chorus of gang-related chants.
Bruce also called two Midland police officers who recalled a traffic stop about a month before Bustamante’s death in which Lopez defiantly resisted arrest.
“You have to give him life,” Bruce said. “Our community is saying, ‘My God. Look at this character.’”
Rogers, for his part, called to the witness stand a number of witnesses who sought to offer mitigating testimony, including both of Lopez’s parents. Lopez’s father, Joe Lopez Jr., played down his son’s criminal history and referred to Bustamante’s death as an accident.
“Murder is when you go out and kill somebody,” the elder Lopez said. “An accident is an accident.”
Authorities had initially charged Lopez with manslaughter, a second-degree felony. At some point before the trial, prosecutors offered a plea bargain to Lopez on that charge with an 18-year prison sentence.
“When this case came in it was filed as an intoxicated manslaughter,” District Attorney Bobby Bland said. Bland said it later became clear to Bruce that the facts of the case “substantiated the charge of murder.”
The jury considered manslaughter as a lesser charge but after four hours of deliberating on Friday returned a guilty verdict on murder.
“Obviously the jury verdict bore out that decision,” Bland said.