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October 22, 2014

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Drug-impaired driver gets up to 20 years in fatal accident

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Yasmina Chavez

Cristian Diaz and his lawyer stand as Judge Jerome Tao announces Diaz’s sentence Monday, March 17, 2014. Diaz, 20, pleaded guilty last year to two counts of driving while under the influence of a controlled substance causing death and substantial bodily harm.

Updated Monday, March 17, 2014 | 5:10 p.m.

Cristian Diaz' Sentencing Hearing

Cristian Diaz apologizes to one of his victims, Anne-Marie Ricci, and his victim's families during his sentencing hearing Monday, March 17, 2014. Diaz, 20, pleaded guilty last year to two counts of driving while under the influence of a controlled substance causing death and substantial bodily harm. Launch slideshow »

Jesse Hill never got to bring his Christmas gift from his girlfriend — a blanket adorned with images of the teenage couple — back to his college dorm room.

Instead, it covered him as he lay dying in a hospital room.

The young couple’s plans changed abruptly and involuntarily on New Year’s Day last year when a car driven by a marijuana-impaired driver veered off a residential street, jumped a curb and struck the pair, killing Hill and seriously injuring his girlfriend, Anne-Marie Ricci, now 17.

On Monday morning, the driver — 20-year-old Cristian Diaz — learned that he could be living behind bars for two decades. Judge Jerome Tao sentenced him to eight to 20 years in prison, the maximum penalty.

Diaz pleaded guilty last year to two counts of driving while under the influence of a controlled substance causing death and substantial bodily harm.

“I’d like to apologize to the families and victims,” Diaz said at the sentencing hearing. “I never meant to hurt anybody. I’m truly sorry for what I did.”

Diaz was driving a 2002 Acura Coupe on Jan. 1, 2013, when he lost control in the 6600 block of Gliding Eagle Road, near Centennial Parkway in North Las Vegas, and struck the teenage couple. Authorities estimated he had been traveling about 65 mph on the residential street at the time of the accident.

A blood test indicated Diaz had seven times the legal amount of a marijuana metabolite in his system, said Deputy District Attorney Tara Roberts.

Diaz’s defense attorney, Jason Weiner, disputed the notion that marijuana metabolites played a role in the accident and said it was the result of poor-decision making.

“This is a tragedy any way you slice it,” he said.

His assertions didn’t satisfy the victims’ families, who packed one side of the courtroom for the sentencing hearing.

Ricci suffered a traumatic-brain injury and several fractures that led to four surgeries and eight months of physical therapy. She had to re-learn how to walk.

And she lost her first love — the young man who joined her family on trips, helped her parents hang Christmas lights and wrote itineraries for their dates.

“I still can’t comprehend he and I were torn apart in a matter of seconds,” Ricci said during her victim-impact statement. “I won’t ever be able to see him again.”

Some days have been so painful for Crystal Hill since her son’s death that she can barely talk, she said.

“I see family and friends go on with their life, but I’m stuck,” she said.

Crystal Hill said she is not a vengeful person, but she asked Tao for justice for her son, Jesse, whom she believes tried to shield his girlfriend from harm.

“I know he would lay his life down for Anne-Marie,” she said. “He loved her.”

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