Crime

Seven years in prison for Miami motorist who killed medical student, crippled brother

Franklin Chavez reads a prepared statement apologizing to the Criales family for the death of Carmen Criales. He was sentenced to seven years in prison after an accident caused when he was driving the wrong way on I-95.
Franklin Chavez reads a prepared statement apologizing to the Criales family for the death of Carmen Criales. He was sentenced to seven years in prison after an accident caused when he was driving the wrong way on I-95. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

As she took the witness stand, Elisa Diaz gasped for breath, stammered for words, contorted her face in pain.

Diaz looked directly at the young man who killed her medical-student daughter, crippled her son and injured her in a violent wrong-way car crash on Interstate 95 in downtown Miami.

Franklin Chavez looked back, frozen and wide-eyed.

“You destroyed by life,” Diaz cried Friday. “You were so irresponsible. Why did you do that?”

Muffled sobs floated out of the packed courtroom gallery.

“I wasn't even able to attend my daughter's funeral,” said Diaz, 49. “I had to spend a month-and-half in the hospital.”

Franklin, 24, a massage therapist at Miami Beach's Standard Hotel, learned where he'll spend his foreseeable future. A Miami-Dade judge sentenced him Friday to seven years in state prison, followed by eight years of probation.

The sentence was by no means light, but it could have been worse. His sentencing guidelines called for a sentence of between 14 to 26 years in prison, and prosecutors wanted him behind bars for two decades. Chavez wasn’t jailed right away, but will surrender sometime in the coming weeks.

“This is tough, These are the toughest cases we have to deal with,” Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy said. “Nobody is walking out of here happy.”

Chavez’s defense lawyer, Andrew Parks, called it a “wise decision.” The father of the victim, Carmen Rosa Criales, 23, was not happy. “I expected the max sentence. Why? He’s a killer,” Noel Criales told reporters.

Friday’s sentencing was an emotionally exhausting finale to a case that started in December 2015, when Chavez was at a holiday party in downtown Miami with other members of a Crossfit gym. He later went to another bar, where he is believed to have kept drinking, prosecutor Derek Lewis told the judge.

In his Toyota Yaris, at about 5:22 a.m., Chavez drove onto Interstate 95 headed south in the northbound lanes. Driving at over 70 miles per hour, with the lights off, Chavez slammed into the car driven by Diaz, who was with Carmen Criales and Bryan Criales.

“The impact from the crash was so violent that Carmen's body could not be removed from her vehicle on the scene, and as a result, the vehicle was towed to the Medical Examiner's Office, where firefighters had to cut Carmen's body out of her car,” prosecutor Ross Weiner wrote in a court filing.

The family was driving to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to drop off Carmen Criales, who was headed to her medical-school orientation in New Jersey.

Bryan Criales, then 22, engaged and on the fast track to become a manager at Publix, survived but barely. He attended Friday’s court hearing in a wheelchair after suffering a traumatic brain injury – he can no longer speak and has long skinny scars that snake down both sides of his scalp.

“We were supposed to be getting married and having kids. Our lives were just starting,” said his fiancée, Amani Gil, who now serves as one of his caretakers.

Investigators believed Chavez was drunk by nearly double the legal limit.

But prosecutors had to drop the DUI manslaughter charge after the judge ruled that Florida Highway Patrol troopers had no probable cause to draw his blood. At the scene, firefighters didn't smell alcohol; Chavez was doused in gasoline.

And there was a critical misstep: Troopers waited too long to get a blood sample taken when Chavez was admitted to Ryder Trauma Center. The sample had already been destroyed.

During his sentencing on Friday, Chavez did not own up to the drinking, but tearfully took responsibility for the crash. Chavez, who told the judge he had been sexually abused by an uncle as a child, had no criminal record before his arrest in this case.

“I feel like a failure,” Chavez said, bawling. “I’m always trying to make people happy and instead, I destroyed a beautiful family.”

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