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Driver convicted in officer's death

The man had been drinking when he hit the mayor's bodyguard's car last year.

By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published February 1, 2007


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TAMPA - Authorities don't know how exactly much alcohol Jose Luis Espinoza had in his blood system when crashed into Mayor Pam Iorio's bodyguard last year.

But evidence that Espinoza was still legally drunk two hours later was enough to convict him Wednesday of killing Tampa police Detective Juan Serrano.

After a little more than one hour of deliberation, an all-male jury found Espinoza, 36, guilty of DUI-manslaughter, vehicular homicide, leaving the scene of a fatal crash and driving without a valid driver's license.

Set to be sentenced in March, he faces up to 30 years in prison.

"It's over," Mylin Serrano, the detective's widow, sighed into her cell phone after the verdict. "It's over."

The trial began Tuesday with witnesses describing the horrifying scene of Espinoza's 1996 Pontiac Grand Prix driving through a red light Feb. 25 at the Gibsonton Drive intersection just off Interstate 75. Serrano had accompanied the mayor to a Gasparilla event that morning, dropped her off at home and headed toward his residence.

The Grand Prix hit the 17-year Tampa police veteran's car in the driver's side door. He suffered severe head and internal injuries and died at Tampa General Hospital.

Espinoza and his passenger ran. The man who was with him was not charged, and did not appear as a witness in the trial.

"Why do you run?" prosecutor Kim Seace said during her closing argument Wednesday morning. "In the legal world, you call it 'consciousness of guilt.' "

Deputies caught up with Espinoza two hours later and got a blood sample. Tests showed his blood alcohol content to be 0.16, twice the level at which Florida law presumes a driver is impaired. A state expert said the amount was equal to seven or eight beers for an average-sized man.

Anthony Candela, Espinoza's attorney, argued that the state could not prove alcohol had contributed to the crash.

He said his client likely ran out of fear - he had come to the United States illegally eight months before from Mexico - and confusion from his own head injury.

"Sometimes a traffic accident is nothing more than a traffic accident," Candela said.

Iorio did not attend the trial but issued a statement afterward.

"He will always be missed," she said of Serrano. "Hopefully today's verdict brings some closure to the Serrano family, Juan's friends and the men and women of the Tampa Police Department."

Mylin Serrano kept her composure as a clerk read the verdicts just after 2 p.m. She cried quietly as each juror was asked to confirm his decision.

A few minutes later, sitting at the head of a prosecutor's conference table, the widow reflected on the trial's outcome.

"After the tragic loss of a loved one in the hands of a drunk driver," she read from a prepared statement, "can we really say that justice has been served?"

Espinoza deserves prison time for taking the love of her life, she said. But her faith keeps her from wishing him ill.

"I have no hate in my heart for Jose Luis Espinoza," she said.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 813 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.

[Last modified February 1, 2007, 06:05:06]


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