On Wednesday, Jan. 2, a Madera County jury convicted Justin Eugene Rice of three felony counts of second degree murder, three felony counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, one count of felony driving under the influence causing injury, and two misdemeanor counts of resisting arrest, according to District Attorney Michael R. Keitz. The convictions came following a six week jury trial in the Madera Superior Court.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Edmund Gill presented the evidence at trial. On Aug. 20, 2009, Rice, 35, of Ventura, was driving south on Highway 41 when he entered the north bound lane, forcing the oncoming vehicles to swerve to avoid a collision.
One vehicle, carrying five Chukchansi Casino employees, was hit head-on by Rice, causing the deaths of Elena Mendoza, Maria Rodriguez and Estella Frias. Rice, who was later determined to be under the influence of methamphetamine, was taken to the emergency room at Madera Community Hospital where he tried to escape and fought the officers attempting to restrain him.
Rice is expected to return to court Jan. 15 when Judge David Minier will determine the special allegation that Rice previously suffered a prior strike conviction under California's Three Strikes Law, and a further allegation that Rice committed other crimes that he spent time in prison for. For his actions, Rice is facing up to life in prison when he is later sentenced.
"The deaths of three victims in this case is a tragic consequence of Rice's choice to drive a vehicle while under the influence of drugs," Keitz said. "It also demonstrates that such unlawful conduct can result in the driver being convicted of murder."