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Sharon Man in Auto Fatality Case Pulls Guilty Plea

Carlos Garcia talks with his attorney Sandy Nelson in Windsor District Court in White River Junction in April. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Carlos Garcia talks with his attorney Sandy Nelson in Windsor District Court in White River Junction in April. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

A Sharon resident charged with drunk driving in a 2011 collision that killed one person and seriously injured another backed out of a hearing yesterday in which he was expected to plead guilty.

The move by Carlos Garcia, 20, whose decision to withdraw from the hearing marks the fifth time the case’s “final status conference” has been rescheduled at the defense’s request, visibly frustrated just about everyone in the courtroom and rekindles the possibility that he will go on trial next month.

“The defendant is not quite ready to proceed,” his attorney, Sandy Nelson, told Judge Robert Gerety in Windsor Superior Court yesterday. “It’s difficult, as far as emotional issues, and there may still be misunderstanding as to how the case will be resolved. Mr. Garcia wishes to change his plea, but doesn’t feel he is in a position to do it today.”

That surprise announcement provoked ire on the part of Deputy Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill, who said he was ready to abandon negotiations and proceed to a trial.

“This is an old case, and there have been a number of ‘final’ final status conferences in this case,” Cahill said. “The state is prepared to put Mr. Garcia to trial. We are ready for a final status conference that is actually a real final status conference.” A “status conference” is a hearing in which lawyers for both sides update the judge on how the case is progressing — whether evidence has been exchanged or depositions taken — and occurs regularly in the run up to a trial or plea deal.

In response, Gerety set a new conference date that will make any additional changes of heart difficult for Garcia because it comes only a couple days before a jury would be scheduled to be selected. The next final status conference will be on May 7. If the case doesn’t resolve, lawyers will pick a jury on May 9 and start the trial.

“We’re here pretty much every day,” Gerety said. “If we don’t have it resolved, we are going to try this case.”

Nelson said the delays in the case stem, in part, from her trouble obtaining Garcia’s juvenile court records and health records from California.

“We’re ready to go — just not today,” Nelson said.

Yesterday’s move in Windsor Superior Court marks the latest frustration for the prosecution.

Shortly after his arrest, Garcia asked to replace his court-appointed attorney: The request was rejected, but five months later, the attorney withdrew, and a new one was assigned. Three judges have presided over his case at various times. And on four separate occasions, the case’s so-called “final status conference” — in which attorneys are either supposed to strike a plea deal or settle on a trial date — has been rescheduled at the defense’s request.

According to court documents, on Oct. 13, 2011, Garcia’s blood-alcohol level was allegedly nearly three times the legal limit when he swerved into the opposite lane on Route 14, slamming into a vehicle driven by San Antonio judge Karen Crouch. Crouch suffered non-life threatening injuries, but her sister-in-law, Zyra Flores, 53, died after she was transported to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Police say that Garcia was driving more than 15 mph over the speed limit and had repeatedly swerved into the southbound lane before colliding with Crouch’s Nissan Altima in front of the Sharon Fire Department.

Garcia was combative with emergency responders at the scene, police said in an affidavit. Investigators found an open container of Strawberry Lemonade Blast Colt 45, and a bottle of hydroxyzine, an antihistamine, in Garcia’s Volkswagen Bug, police said.

Garcia, who was not wearing a seat belt, suffered a fractured hip. He had moved to Vermont only weeks before the incident, according to court documents.

He faces six felony charges, including two counts of gross negligent operation, which combined carry a maximum sentence of more than 40 years in prison.

Garcia has been held in Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury, Vt., on $50,000 bail since his arrest.

Crouch, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, and Flores were in town to attend a Vermont Law School conference on mediation, and had left the school minutes before the collision

With the case once again pending, attorneys had little to say afterward.

Nelson confirmed that Garcia still intended to reach a plea deal and avoid a trial.

“He just freaked out,” Nelson said. “He’s a young kid.”

And Cahill reaffirmed that prosecutors are prepared to put their case to a jury in May if he fails to reach a deal.

“The state has not asked for any delays in this case,” Cahill said.

Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.