NACOGDOCHES, TX (KTRE) - A 23-year-old Nacogdoches man accepted a plea bargain deal of 10 years in a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison Friday for being the driver involved in a fatal auto-pedestrian accident that occurred on North Sanders Street in February of 2015 and then fleeing the scene.
As part of the agreement, Justin Edward Laird will be eligible for probation after six months if he doesn't get into any trouble while he is serving his time.
"After speaking with the victim's family, this sentence is what they felt was fair and just without having to relive the tragedy all over again through the process of a jury trial - we agree," said Andrew Jones, an assistant prosecutor with the Nacogdoches County District Attorney's Office. "Mr. Laird made a terrible mistake that cost Ms. Cruz her life. The crime wasn't in the accident so much as it was in leaving the scene after he realized what he had done."
Jones said that Laird was only 21 at the time of the offense.
"He is a young man who panicked and did the wrong thing," Jones said. "The family of the victim understands that and doesn't want to ruin his life with a prison trip. The District Attorney's Office wants to be clear. We want to further deter any others who think they can get away with this offense with just a slap on the wrist; however, we must do this within the bounds of fairness to all parties involved."
Jones went on to say that the Nacogdoches County District Attorney's Office felt that at last some prison time was warranted in Laird's case, and that is why they chose what is commonly referred to as "shock probation."
"We are putting the ball in Mr. Laird's court; if he can do what he needs to do while in custody for six months, then he's earned a shot a probation," Jones said. "If he doesn't do what he needs to do while in custody, then he will remain in prison for up to 10 years."
Jones said his office and Matilde Cruz's family are grateful to the Nacogdoches Police Department's effort in the investigation of the case.
"But for their actions, we would not have been able to see that justice was done for Ms. Cruz and her family."
If Laird manages to get shock probation after six months in prison, he will be required to serve 400 hours of community service, pay restitution to Cruz's family for her funeral expenses, write a letter of apology to the family, and have no other future contact with Cruz's family. Laird will also be banned from driving for a period of two years. His license will be revoked during that time, and he will be required to get a valid Texas Identification Card.
According to the Nacogdoches Police Department, Cruz, 54, of Nacogdoches, was struck by a pickup drive by Laird on Feb. 19, 2015, as she was walking southbound near the 200 block of North Sanders Street with her husband. After the accident, Laird fled down Evenlyn Street.
The description of the suspect's pickup was broadcast by radio to all of the Nacogdoches PD officers on duty that night.
Laird was stopped eight minutes later near the intersection Starr Ave. and Raguet Street. The damage to front end of his vehicle matched with the incident.
Laird was charged with failure to stop and render aid with a fatality, a second-degree felony.
Cruz was taken to Nacogdoches Memorial by ambulance and was pronounced dead at 7:24 p.m.on Feb. 19, 2015.