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Preliminary hearing begins in farmworker death case

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Posted: Wednesday, October 27, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 8:14 am, Fri Jan 21, 2011.

A preliminary hearing that began Monday will determine if defendants will be tried for involuntary manslaughter in connection with the 2008 death of 17-year-old Lodi farmworker Maria Isabel Jimenez Vasquez in Farmington.

Maria De Los Angeles Colunga, who owned the farm-labor contractor Vasquez worked for, has been charged along with her brother, Elias Armenta and Raul Martinez. Armenta served as safety director for the company, Merced Farm Labor, and Martinez was a supervisor. Colunga and Armenta have hired Woodbridge attorney Randy Thomas to represent them, while Martinez fled the charges and his current location is unknown.

Vasquez, who was two months pregnant, collapsed while working in a vineyard amidst temperatures of more than 90 degrees on May 14, 2008. She was sent to Lodi Memorial Hospital, where it was determined she had a miscarriage. She died two days later at the hospital. Gov. Arnold Schwarzennegar visited Lodi to pay his respects on the day of her funeral, which was held at St. Anne's Catholic Church.

Merced Farm Labor was fined more than $262,000 in the aftermath of the incident, and the state ultimately shut the contractor down in June 2008. Now Colunga and Armenta could face jail time if tried and convicted of manslaughter, which Thomas says is too harsh a charge for the situation.

"Typically in California, in a situation like this, people aren't charged with involuntary manslaughter," Thomas said. "My clients never even met the victim. They had up to 700 employees on any given day."

Thomas doesn't deny that his clients should have some charges brought against them — just not felony charges. But county Deputy District Attorney Lester Fleming, who filed the charges on the state's behalf, said involuntary manslaughter is appropriate.

"The labor code says that if you violate (certain regulations), and it leads to a worker's death, that's a felony," Fleming said. "They violated these laws, and they should have known that that could lead to someone dying out in the field. And in fact did."

Thomas said that pressure from outside influences such as the United Farmworkers Union, which brought much attention to the case, are to blame for the manslaughter charges being brought forth.

"It's a political move, period," Thomas said.

Fleming refutes that.

"I can understand his feelings that politics are involved in some fashion, but not in the charging," Fleming said. "I looked at the law, I looked at the facts, and these seemed to be the most appropriate charges that I could come up with."

Vasquez's boyfriend, who also impregnated her, is scheduled to testify in the preliminary hearing on Monday. Florentino Bautista was working with Vasquez when she collapsed, and Thomas said he should bear some of the blame for her death because he failed to tell Merced Farm Labor that she was pregnant and not feeling well. Bautista is also an undocumented immigrant.

The hearing is expected to conclude Monday, after which presiding county Superior Court Judge Michael Garrigan will determine if a jury trial is warranted.

Contact reporter Fernando Gallo at fernando@lodinews.com.

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