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Repeat DUI Offender Sentenced to 25 Years to Life for Causing Fatal DHS Wreck

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Banning, CA -

A repeat DUI offender who was on probation when she caused a 2014 crash while drunk, killing a woman and seriously injuring two men in Desert Hot Springs, was sentenced Friday to 25 years to life in state prison.

Monica Benavidez, 37, was convicted in February of second-degree murder, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and DUI, with several sentence- enhancing allegations. Jurors deliberated for only a few hours before returning guilty verdicts on all counts.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan sentenced Benavidez to 15 years to life on the murder count and 10 years on the other counts.

The June 5, 2014, crash killed 65-year-old Desert Hot Springs resident Maria Caballeros and seriously injured her son-in-law, Rigoberto Cuevas, and his co-worker, Javier Fierro-Ayon.

Benavidez previously pleaded guilty in 2006 and in 2012 to misdemeanor DUI counts, for which she received probation; pleaded guilty in 2008 to driving with a suspended license; and was charged in 2013 with DUI and driving with a suspended license, court records show. She was on probation for the 2012 DUI at the time of the fatal 2014 crash.

Prosecutors said Benavidez had a .21 percent blood-alcohol content -- nearly triple the legal limit -- when her Toyota Camry crossed the double- yellow lines on Palm Drive and crashed head-on into a Toyota Corolla driven by Cuevas. The crash left Caballeros dead at the scene and Cuevas suffering from a traumatic brain injury, respiratory failure, a spine injury and fractures to his skull and ribs. Prosecutors say he was left paralyzed and requires treatment and nursing care.

Fierro-Ayon, who was in the back seat of the Corolla, suffered multiple fractures that required surgery, as well as four broken ribs.

Benavidez, who was alone in the Camry, also sustained serious injuries in the crash and was pulled out of her car by a bystander.

Deputy District Attorney August Sage said Benavidez was warned of the dangers during her previous DUI convictions, but on the day of the crash ``consciously disregarded those warnings.'' ``The decision she made took the life of Maria Caballeros that day,'' Sage told the jury.

Fierro-Ayon testified that he saw Benavidez's car enter their lane about five to six seconds prior to the crash. After the impact, he said he saw Cuevas bleeding from the nose and mouth, but didn't see Caballeros before firefighters pulled him out of the wreckage.

Jurors were shown a photo of Caballeros slumped over in the passenger seat and bleeding from the neck. The cause of her death was blunt force trauma, according to the prosecution.

Benavidez's attorney, Dennette McIntyre, argued her client was likely guilty of drunken driving and perhaps even manslaughter but rejected the prosecution's second-degree murder charge, which requires that defendants act with conscious disregard for human life.

McIntyre framed Benavidez's state of mind as ``reckless indifference'' and said other factors brought up by the prosecution, including her two prior convictions, did not mean the prosecution would meet the burden of proof for a murder charge.

``Just because someone has prior convictions does not mean there was conscious disregard for life,'' McIntyre said.

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