HILLSBORO, OR (The Oregonian) – The Oregon Court of Appeals has reversed the conviction of a young woman who killed two girls in 2013 when she ran over them while they were playing in a leaf pile in Forest Grove.
There was insufficient evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Cinthya Garcia-Cisneros knew or had reason to know she injured stepsisters Anna Dieter-Eckerdt, 6, and Abigail Robinson, 11, according to the ruling Wednesday.
Authorities said the girls were likely lying in a large mound of leaves on the street in October 2013 and not visible to Garcia-Cisneros when her SUV passed through about a block away from her home.
The Appeals Court said Oregon law doesn’t require a driver to return to the scene of an accident after leaving and later learning that someone else was injured or killed.
“We’re very happy that the Court of Appeals agreed with the argument we’ve been making all along, which is that Cinthya committed no crime,” said Jesse Merrithew, one of the attorneys who represented Garcia-Cisneros.
Senior county prosecutor Bracken McKey said he was “deeply saddened for the victims and their family.” He said it would be up to the Oregon Department of Justice on whether to challenge the appeal court’s ruling.
“Justice (James) Egan’s opinion states that the defendant had no responsibility to return to the scene, provide aid, call 911, give a statement to the police, or do any of the things that the judge and jury unanimously found the defendant was required to do,” McKey said in a statement. “We are unable to re-prosecute the case because the opinion concludes that this conduct was not criminal as a matter of law — as opposed to a reversal for misconduct or an irregularity in the trial.”
Tom Robinson and Susan Dieter-Robinson, the parents of Anna and Abigail, said in a statement that they were saddened and confused by the appeals court ruling. They said Garcia-Cisneros “has continued to make choices to avoid the consequences for her behavior,” and a jury “agreed with the intent of the law” in finding her guilty.
“We will continue to honor our girls by not letting today’s disappointment turn into anger or bitterness,” the statement said. “Today that is a little hard to do but tomorrow is another day.”
Garcia-Cisneros was heading home with her boyfriend and brother after driving to get food. Garcia-Cisneros testified during her trial in January 2014 that she felt a bump while driving over the leaves, but thought she’d run over a rock.
Her brother returned to the scene minutes after the crash and saw a man, later identified as the girls’ father, standing over the pile, screaming. The boy returned home and told his sister she might have hit two children. She was arrested the next day.
A Washington County Circuit Court jury convicted Garcia-Cisneros, then 19, of failure to perform the duties of a driver. Judge Rick Knapp later sentenced her to three years of probation and 250 hours of community service.
Prosecutors argued Oregon’s hit-and-run law required Garcia-Cisneros to go back to the crash site after she learned someone may have been hurt. Garcia-Cisneros initially sought an acquittal citing insufficient evidence to prove her guilt, but it was denied by the lower court. She later appealed her conviction.
Garcia-Cisneros’ attorneys said during the trial that she was shocked and in a state of denial after she found out about the children and believed her brother may have been mistaken because she saw no signs of them.
Both sides agreed that Garcia-Cisneros didn’t initially know she injured anyone.
Her boyfriend, Mario Echeverria, was sentenced in December 2013 to 13 months in prison for hindering prosecution related to the accident.
The day after the crash Echeveria took the SUV, which belonged to his mother, and drove with Garcia-Cisneros to a car wash. He later testified during Garcia-Cisneros’ trial that he got the SUV washed to get rid of evidence from the accident.
Garcia-Cisneros told the girls’ parents during her sentencing hearing that she should have returned to the scene and asked for forgiveness. Dieter-Robinson said they did forgive her.
After her conviction, Garcia-Cisneros was taken to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma because she wasn’t an American citizen. She was brought to the U.S. from Mexico as a 4-year-old and had temporary permission to be in the country legally under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Her conviction put her in danger of deportation, but an immigration judge dismissed her case in August 2014 and she was released from custody. Her attorney in the deportation case told The Oregonian/OregonLive at the time that the ruling put her back under deferred action but she could be removed from the U.S. if she committed another crime.