On a tense afternoon filled with anger and tears, Andy Gary Barrios, the driver of the car that killed local rapper Jose "Low Key" Hernandez and two other men a few hours after Christmas Day 2015, pleaded guilty in Phoenix municipal court on Friday of one count of causing death by a moving violation, a Class 3 misdemeanor.
Judge Cynthia Gonzales sentenced Barrios, 24, to the maximum time allowed under the statute — 30 days in county jail — but not before Barrios and the court heard impassioned statements from friends and family members of the victims. Hernandez, 25, Jonathan Green, 26, and Jose "Chico" Martinez, 25, died in the early morning hours of December 26, 2015, when Barrios' black Chevy Tahoe ran a red light at 59th Avenue and Indian School Road, T-boning a 1997 Lexus ES300 driven by Green, with Martinez and Hernandez as passengers.
In the Phoenix police report regarding the incident, Barrios admitted to having drunk several beers earlier at a nearby strip club, Chicas Cabaret. Barrios, who was driving without insurance, conceded to officers that the light had been red when he went through the intersection. Police later estimated that he had been driving 56 mph in a 40 mph zone. But officers reported no visible signs of impairment and both a breathalyzer test and a blood draw showed that Barrios' blood-alcohol content was below the legal limit of 0.08.
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office declined to prosecute Barrios for felony manslaughter, claiming there was no reasonable likelihood of conviction in the case — a decision that still rankles the victims' families. As a result, the City of Phoenix brought the misdemeanor charge against Barrios, who failed to make his initial appearance in July. He was later picked up on a warrant and freed on a $5,000 bond.
Such circumstances explain the tension in court on Friday, with Gonzales ordering that one row in the gallery be kept empty as a buffer between the few supporters of Barrios present and the many friends and family members of the victims. Gonzales twice admonished attendees regarding outbursts during the proceedings. Five Phoenix police officers were on hand to keep the peace.
Scott Green Sr., father of Jonathan Green, gave one of the most moving testimonials of those who chose to speak. A big man with deep, sorrowful eyes, Green spoke of his son as a great father to three little daughters who are too young to grow up with any real memories of their dad.
The judge had instructed speakers to face her and not Barrios, which Green did. Yet at times, speaking in a calm, gentle voice, he addressed his remarks to the defendant.
"I don't think you can understand at such a young age how much pain you have caused," he said. "I'm 52 years old. With age comes wisdom. I hope that one day you have wisdom to reflect on how much damage you have done."
Green told Barrios that one day he may be haunted by the sound of sirens, as Green now is.
"As a parent, I'd give anything ...," said Green, before dissolving into sobs as many in the gallery openly wept at his words.
Holly Green, Jonathan's sister, also spoke.
"I forgive him," she said of Barrios, "but I hope it's something that he thinks about every day. It's something we think about every day. When my brother died, something in my family died, too."
Jonathan's brother, Scott Green Jr., told the judge that he prayed that others don't have to go through what his family has endured. "This isn't exactly the justice we were hoping for." he said.
Just before the hearing, as Barrios entered the courtroom, he wore a smile as he chatted with his attorneys. But as the testimonials went on, his head sank.
Several speakers complained that they felt Barrios had shown no remorse and had failed to apologize to the victims. Others said it didn't seem fair to sentence Barrios to a maximum of 30 days for the deaths of three men who, hours before their deaths had handed out blankets to the homeless and toys to needy children.
Nicole Sivesind told the judge that Hernandez, whom she referred to by his nickname, "Bubba," was her best friend.
"While something is being done, we don't feel it is enough," Sivesind said. "I think I speak for everyone when I say we're angry. I think we feel let down by the justice system. [Barrios has] been an obvious menace on the street. Three people were killed ... These were not garbage guys. These were good guys."
She asked Gonzales to order Barrios taken into custody immediately, rather than schedule a time for him to surrender.
City prosecutor Garrett Griggs was not immune to the day's emotion. He ran through Barrios' history of low-level criminal and civil violations, which involved once allowing a minor to operate his vehicle, speeding, and a recent citation for public urination. He asked Gonzales for the maximum punishment for Barrios, his voice breaking at one point when he described a photo of the three victims and the light in their eyes.
Barrios' sister addressed the court on his behalf, telling the judge they'd lost their father at an early age and were raised in abusive foster homes. She described the accident as "an honest mistake" and pointed out that Barrios has a daughter who needs him.
Barrios' attorney, Grace Myers, said her client is remorseful. She read aloud a letter from Barrios expressing his sorrow for the accident, saying he was too overcome with emotion to read it himself.
"I feel terrible about the situation," Myers read. "I cannot believe what I've done ... I apologize to all that I have hurt."
Myers asked the judge not to impose jail time, saying Barrios was so upset by the accident that he has not taken the wheel since.
Gonzales asked Barrios if he wanted to say anything. Standing before her in slacks and a long-sleeved white dress shirt, he cried.
"It was an accident," he said. "It wasn't intentional. There's nothing I can do or say to change what happened. But I want everyone to know that I'm sorry."
Gonzales then lectured those in attendance, telling them they should always remember the maxim, "There but for the grace of God go I." She pointed out that the case did not involve a DUI and had not been charged as a felony, so she would not treat it as such.
She then sentenced Barrios to the full 30 days, fined him $1,000, and ordered him to pay $20,000 in restitution to the victims' families.
Gonzales ordered Barrios taken into custody. Officers had him empty his pockets before escorting him out of the courtroom.
Though some of the victims' family members were pleased at the outcome, many were upset to learn that Barrios will be eligible for work-release — meaning he will go to his job during the day and spend his nights in county jail.
Hernandez's grandmother, Deborah Murdoch, was incensed. Before the hearing she had briefly confronted Barrios in the hallway, demanding to know if he was the man who killed her grandson.
"There was no justice served," Murdoch told New Times. "And with him making 'hotel time'? That's a joke to the judge and the system."
Murdoch said the family feels abandoned by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, given its failure to charge Barrios with felony manslaughter.
"I don't believe in an eye for an eye, I really don't," she said. "But in this case, because of what the justice system did for us, I wish nothing but bad for this kid."