A state appeals court in San Francisco today upheld second-degree murder convictions and a sentence of 23 years to life for a man who killed two children in a head-on crash on state Highway 12 in Solano County in 2006.
Nicola Bucci, 37, of San Francisco, was convicted in Solano County Superior court in 2008 of the murders of Immanuel Callison, 7, and Demari Hutchinson, 12, both of Suisun City.
Bucci, a sous chef at Google Inc.’s headquarters in Mountain View, was driving a Lexus sport utility vehicle eastbound on Highway 12 at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 17, 2006.
Witnesses said he pulled into the westbound lane in a no-passing zone on a hill to pass a semi-tractor trailer. While attempting to pass a second trailer, he hit a westbound Toyota Corolla containing the two children.
Bucci was also found guilty of causing great bodily injury to Immanuel’s mother, 47-year-old Regina Jackson of Suisun City, who was driving the Toyota, and to another son, Jordan Callison, now 14, who was paralyzed from the waist down.
There was no evidence of drugs or alcohol in Bucci’s system. He claimed he had fallen asleep because of exposure to carbon dioxide fumes in a freezer at Google 3.5 hours earlier.
Prosecutors claimed Bucci acted deliberately and did not appear to have been asleep when he pulled into the wrong lane on the hill. They said he had not been driving erratically and was lucid and logical at the scene of the accident. Prosecutors also said there was plenty of time for the alleged fumes to wear off.
A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeal unanimously rejected a series of appeal arguments raised by Bucci, including his contention that he lacked the implied malice or intentional recklessness needed to support a second-degree murder conviction.
The panel said there was substantial evidence for a finding of implied malice.
“Bucci was speeding up a hill going the wrong direction in a no-passing zone on a highway, where he could not see oncoming traffic on the other side of the hill and could not return to his correct lane because of the semi-trailers he was trying to pass,” Justice Henry Needham wrote.
“Certainly a reasonable juror could conclude that the natural consequences of his conduct were dangerous to life and that his conduct endangered the lives of others – such as the occupants of any vehicle approaching from the other side of the crest of the hill,” he wrote.
The appeals court also turned down Bucci’s argument that prosecutors should not have been allowed to introduce evidence of an earlier fatal collision in 1994.
In that collision, Bucci’s pickup truck veered into the wrong lane on state Highway 80 in Nevada County and hit a Cadillac sedan head-on, killing two people.
He said he had fallen asleep as a result of staying awake for 30 hours while gambling in Reno and ingesting alcohol and marijuana. Bucci pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges of vehicular manslaughter and was placed on five years’ probation.
The appeals panel said prosecutors were justified in introducing evidence of the earlier collision, without mentioning his conviction, for the purpose of showing that even if Bucci had fallen asleep in the 2006 crash, he was aware that falling asleep while driving is dangerous to human life.
“The evidence of the 1994 fatalities was therefore substantially relevant to Bucci’s knowledge at the time of the charged crimes,” Needham wrote.
Bucci’s attorney in the appeal, Joseph Walsh, was not immediately available for comment on the case, which could be appealed further to the California Supreme Court.