Jury hands down seven-year sentence in intoxication manslaughter case

EDINBURG — A jury found a Donna woman guilty Thursday of intoxication manslaughter for her role in a New Year’s Day car crash in Alamo that killed the passenger in her minivan.

The jury handed down a seven-year sentence on Friday to the defendant in the case, Perla Elizabeth Arguelles. The punishment was left up to the jury to decide as per the request of her attorney, Jesus “Jesse” Villalobos.

The second-degree felony carried a minimum sentence of two years and a maximum of 20. Villalobos asked the 12-member jury to consider probation as an alternate to prison given that Arguelles has no prior criminal history, nor a documented history of alcohol abuse.

The district attorney’s office, on the other hand, pushed for the maximum sentence.

Arguelles, 40, crashed into a utility pole on the morning of Jan. 1 as she and Juan de Dios Cavazos Hinojosa, 46, of Reynosa, made their way home from a night of festivities. Cavazos — who was not wearing a seatbelt — died after hitting his head on the windshield.

Arguelles had a .12 blood-alcohol content based on tests performed after the crash; the maximum legal limit is .08. Cavazos’ content was found to be .29.

Villalobos argued the pair was fighting at the time of the crash and that his client — who he represented pro bono — lost control of the vehicle because Cavazos “was pulling and grabbing at her” trying to find her phone.

“There were a lot of mitigating factors in this case,” he said in an interview Friday after the ruling.

Ultimately, Hidalgo County Assistant Criminal District Attorney Cassandra Hernandez told the jury that Villalobos, who “promised to bring you evidence,” never proved Arguelles was “driving just fine” up until the crash.

Arguelles, a Mexican citizen who does not have legal residency in the United States, has been in prison for more than nine months, time that will be applied to her sentence.

During witness testimony during the sentencing phase, Arguelles’ 19-year-old daughter spoke of the challenge of raising her three younger siblings — ages 6, 14 and 15 — in her mother’s absence and of how she has put her own dream of going to college on hold to care for them.

“She was the best mother she could be,” her daughter said, struggling to hold back tears as she spoke of a woman who “always tried her best.”

“She worked jobs that weren’t for a woman,” her daughter added, noting that her mother was at times employed as a mechanic and bricklayer. “She would go out there and do what she needed to do. … If she didn’t know how (to do it), she learned.”

Arguelles was unable to bond out of jail because she had a federal immigration hold, and once she completes her sentence, she will be deported, Villalobos said. Her only chance at staying in the United States was if she was found not guilty.

He said juries can be reluctant to grant probation to non-citizens since there is no way for them to meet all of their probation requirements in another country, a fact Hernandez underscored. Probationers in Mexico cannot complete community service nor attend drug and alcohol awareness classes.

Arguelles will be eligible for probation in a year’s time, and Villalobos said in his experience, inmates who are Mexican citizens are frequently granted parole because the state does not want to incur the costs of incarcerating someone who will ultimately be deported.

“Truthfully, (deportation is) the worst punishment,” Villalobos said as to why he fought the case, rather than agreeing to a plea bargain to avoid going to trial.