Farm supervisors take plea deal in CA heat death

The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 7:44 PM

STOCKTON, Calif. -- Two California farm supervisors charged in the heat-related death of a pregnant teen farmworker reached a plea deal and were sentenced Wednesday to community service and probation, angering farmworker advocates who had called for jail time.

The supervisors initially were charged with involuntary manslaughter in the nation's first criminal case involving the heat-related death of a farmworker.

California introduced the first heat regulations in the nation in 2005 to protect the state's 450,000 seasonal workers, but advocates said the rules were routinely violated.

Authorities said Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez, 17, died in 2008 because supervisors failed to provide shade and water as she pruned grapes for nine hours in nearly triple-digit heat in a San Joaquin County vineyard. The teenager was two months pregnant.

Under the plea deal approved by Superior Court Judge Michael Garrigan, defendant Maria De Los Angeles Colunga, the owner of now-defunct Merced Farm Labor, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of failing to provide shade. She was given 40 hours of community service and will serve three years of probation and pay a $370 fine.

Her brother, Elias Armenta, who was the company's former safety coordinator, pleaded guilty to a felony count of failing to follow safety regulations that resulted in death. He was sentenced to 480 hours of community service, five years of probation and a $1,000 fine.

The plea deals also banned both from ever again working in farm labor contracting.

The sentences angered Maria Isavel's family and dozens of supporters who had called for stricter punishment.

"Justice failed us," said Jose Luis Vasquez Jimenez, her brother, who joined a dozen supporters who stood silently outside the courtroom holding enlarged photographs of Maria Isavel.

"We hoped for a stronger sentence, so the farm employers could learn to respect farmworkers," he said. "My sister is in my heart and I feel sad that nothing was done to punish those who led to her death."

Defense attorney Randy Thomas said it was time Colunga and Armenta put the case behind them.

"The defendants are sad about this case, but their involvement was very peripheral, in my opinion, so this was a sound resolution," Thomas said.

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