Sacramento County prosecutors are considering filing homicide charges in the July 16 hit-and-run case in Carmichael now that one of the victims has died.
District Attorney Jan Scully's office is studying whether to file "possible homicide charges," spokeswoman Shelly Orio said Monday, one day after 21-year-old Harison Long-Randall died at Mercy San Juan Medical Center.
Orio said no decision had been made about when, or if, new charges will be filed.
The suspect, 31-year-old Paul William Walden, is being held without bail at the Sacramento County jail and faces charges that include hit-and-run, cruelty to animals and driving under the influence.
But the death of Long-Randall, who lost his leg trying to shove his girlfriend out of the path of the car that hit them, may expose Walden to a much more severe penalty.
The California Highway Patrol said Sunday that it would seek an involuntary manslaughter charge.
But Scully's office may end up seeking a second-degree murder charge based on the legal theory that Walden was guilty of "wanton or reckless disregard" for the safety of others, one veteran attorney said Monday.
"There are several different potential charges that they can bring," said Sacramento defense attorney William Portanova, a former federal and county prosecutor.
"The lowest level is vehicular manslaughter, sometimes referred to as involuntary manslaughter. This is where you commit a minor offense and somebody ends up dying, like an unsafe lane change on the freeway."
Much more likely in this case is a second-degree murder charge, Portanova said, where prosecutors would try to prove that Walden's alleged behavior was so reckless that it merited a charge that could bring him a sentence of 15 years to life.
"If you really wanted to boil this down to its essence, if the mistake is negligence, it can be manslaughter," Portanova said. "If the mistake is recklessness, it can be murder.
"Driving down a residential street at 80 mph is reckless, plain and simple."
Witnesses say Long-Randall and his 23-year-old girlfriend, Gemily West, were struck about 10 p.m. as they walked West's four dogs in a crosswalk at Garfield Avenue and Engle Road.
Long-Randall lost his leg in the impact and had been in critical condition since the incident.
A Mercy San Juan Medical Center spokeswoman said the hospital could not divulge information about the cause of death, and Long-Randall's family has asked for privacy as they grieve. The Coroner's Office log shows Long-Randall died at 3:02 a.m. Sunday.
West suffered a compound fracture of her right leg and other injuries. Her four dogs were killed. The driver did not stop or slow down, authorities said.
Walden was arrested a few days later driving a 1987 Nissan Maxima that matched evidence found at the scene, the CHP said.
At the time he was pulled over, he was driving under the influence of drugs and on a suspended driver's license, the CHP said. Authorities said he indicated to officers that he thought he had hit a dog and kept going.
If Scully's office pursues a second-degree murder case, it could be similar to a prosecution in Placer County stemming from the 2005 death of Rocklin Police Officer Matthew Redding.
Redding, 29, was rerouting traffic on Highway 65 before dawn when he was struck by a pickup truck driven by Eric Kenneth Dungan.
Dungan originally was charged with hit-and-run, driving under the influence and manslaughter, but Placer County prosecutors subsequently charged him with second-degree murder, citing his disregard for the safety of others.
Testimony at Dungan's 2007 trial indicated his blood alcohol content was 0.16 to 0.18 percent, twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent, and that a taxi driver had warned him three times not to drive shortly before he hit Redding.
Dungan, who was using his cellphone and texting seconds before Redding was hit, was sentenced to 15 years to life in state prison.