Her family – mother, father and three siblings – were dead, killed by a drunken driver speeding the wrong way on a Harris County freeway whose pickup slammed into their car, turning it into a fireball.
For months she lay in a coma in a local hospital with what the doctors said was a partial internal decapitation. They thought she wouldn’t make it. When she woke up, they told her she would never walk again.
But on Tuesday, almost nine months after the tragic crash, Stephanie Guzman struggled into a white hooded sweatshirt in a cold Houston courtroom and, from her wheelchair, confronted the man who had just pleaded guilty to killing her family.
“My legs were broken, I was burned, I was dead,” Guzman told a room full of supporters, including Sheriff Adrian Garcia and several deputies who had worked on the case. “They thought I was going to die. The doctors were wrong.”
Across the courtroom, in handcuffs and a white collared shirt, Efraim Carmona sat quietly as the 16-year-old spoke. Earlier in the day, he had entered a plea of guilty to five counts of intoxication manslaughter in an agreement that would send him to prison for 50 years.
Signs and sensors have helped to reduce the number of fatalities caused by wrong-way traffic, according to the Harris County Toll Road Authority. Efforts to make highways safer follow surge in wrong-way wrecks Stephanie Guzman, 15, was still in the hospital Thursday while her family’s funeral was held in Houston. For a second time, funeral marks loss of family in senseless
“My family is gone,” Guzman told him. “I know your family is sad, but you’re going to be here.”
Carmona wrote a letter to the Houston girl and her family, telling her he realizes now that he is an alcoholic who thought he had his condition under control because he had managed to hold down a job and pay his bills.
“If I could trade my life to bring your family back I would,” he wrote. “I hope you can take this letter as a lifetime of ‘I’m sorrys.’?”
Carmona was drunk on June 29 when he drove onto the Sam Houston Tollway, entering an exit ramp near Humble the wrong way. Carmona’s truck collided head-on with the Guzman family’s pickup. His blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.23 percent, or almost three times the legal limit, at the time he was arrested, investigators said.
The crash killed Stephanie’s father, Valentin Guzman, 41; her mother, 40-year-old Elvira Guzman Santoyo; sisters Ani and Patricia, 12 and 11; and her 3-year-old brother, Valentin Jr.
Stephanie, then 15, was the only one to survive. She suffered a tear in her spinal column, a partial internal decapitation, the same kind of injury that killed most of her family.
She still bears scars from the crash, some under her right eye and others on her chin. On the stand, she first asked that her face not be photographed, then changed her mind after seeing the outpouring of support, later smiling easily in court and when talking to reporters.
“I’m going to be free,” she told reporters. “I know I’m going to have a good future. I know it’s going to take time, but I’m going to make it.”
Assistant District Attorney Alison Baimbridge called Guzman “our miracle.” The Harris County prosecutor said Guzman’s daily physical therapy has enabled her to walk about 70 feet with a walker.
“In her mind, she’ll be able to do everything she could do before,” Baimbridge said. “We’ve been told she’ll need assistance walking for the rest of her life. But you saw her spirit, so the sky’s the limit.”
A panel of prospective jurors was heading to state District Judge Susan Brown’s courtroom to begin jury selection in Carmona’s trial when he decided to take the plea deal that means he will have to spend at least 25 years behind bars before becoming eligible for parole.
The mechanics behind the plea bargain mean that he agreed to 10 years in jail for each of the five intoxication manslaughter charges, which are stacked. As a practical matter, Carmona has to serve half of each sentence before he is parole eligible. After he is granted parole on the first one, he will begin serving the second 10-year sentence, a process that will continue until he serves out his sentence for each charge.
The result is that he is likely to serve the lion’s share of the half-century sentence.
In court during the plea, his lawyer made it clear that Carmona was aware of strong evidence in his defense.
“It was his choice,” said David Bires. “I don’t force people to do what I want to them to do; I just make them aware of what their choices are.”
‘I’m still the same girl’
With her thick black hair cut to mask a long scar stretching across her head above her right ear, Guzman spoke for about 20 minutes against drunken driving, pledging to make herself whole and describing the pain she’s endured, physically and emotionally.
“I’m here because I lost my whole family,” she said. “No matter what happened to me, I’m still happy. I’m still the same girl.”
At times she seemed to be speaking to Carmona, who did not respond, but mostly she spoke about him. She said it was God’s place to pass judgment, not hers.
“I’m not going to judge him,” she said of the defendant. “But I want him to know that my family is gone, but I’m going to grow up happy.”
Several deputies who worked on the accident reconstruction and other facets of the case were in court for the sentencing, and shook Guzman’s hand or patted her back. The sheriff, who said he visited Guzman in the hospital after the wreck, pinned a souvenir badge on her sweatshirt just before she spoke.
“You are just a phenomenal, phenomenal young lady,” Garcia told her. “Your challenges and your family’s story has been something we’ve used to educate other people about drunk driving. We’re very proud of you.”
Elvira Guzman’s brother, Enrique Santoyo, 30, also gave a victim impact statement supporting his niece.
“We’re all here for Stephanie,” he said. “Now that my sister and my brother-in-law are no longer here, we’re going to give her all the love she needs.”
If you or someone you know has been the victim of a automobile accident, please contact The Dailey Law Firm. The experienced attorneys at The Dailey Law Firm believe in what is right. To schedule an appointment today, call the Michigan office at 248-554-5005, the Illinois office at 312-867-8800, and the Missouri office at 855-529-7469. Or visit MyCrash.org.