Ashley Monturio appears in Cambridge District Court in September 2019 in a screen capture from WBZ-TV reporting.

Ashley Monturio was acquitted Tuesday of leaving the scene after running over and killing an 80-year-old woman in the parking lot of a Cambridgeport public housing project. Cambridge District Court Judge David Frank said the prosecution hadn’t proven conclusively that Monturio knew she had hit Romelia Gallardo, who lived in the low-income LBJ Apartments development. And that was a crucial requirement for conviction, he said.

The verdict in the crowded Medford courtroom brought tears from family members on both sides. Thomas Hoopes, Monturio’s lawyer, said: “It was just one of those cases that was just a tragedy.” One of Gallardo’s daughters said, “This is not justice” before a court officer directed the family to the assistant district attorney’s office and barred a reporter from continuing the interview.

Frank himself began his decision, issued orally from the bench, saying that “there is no question that what happened was a tragedy” and that Gallardo’s life ended “in truly gruesome and horrific circumstances.”

Monturio, 44, of Pembroke, was going to a job interview when she mistakenly drove into one of the parking lots for LBJ Apartments senior public housing development at 150 Erie St. on Sept. 6, 2018. She turned around to leave and stopped at the exit while she tried to find the correct location. Meanwhile, Gallardo had left the building by a side door into the parking lot and wheeled her walker beside the passenger side of Monturio’s Infiniti SUV.

Romelia Gallardo

Then Gallardo turned in front of the SUV and bent down, apparently to pick up something. Monturio drove out of the parking lot, running over Gallardo with the front and rear passenger side wheels. Gallardo was 4 feet, 10 inches tall and weighed 98 pounds, according to testimony at the trial.

Monturio stopped on Erie Street after seeing Gallardo lying on the pavement and called 911, telling a dispatcher that a woman who was bleeding and unconscious was lying on the ground and she didn’t know what had happened. When the dispatcher asked her to stay until help arrived, Monturio said others were at the scene and she had to leave for a job interview.

Police and emergency workers responding to the scene at first thought Gallardo had fallen, but surveillance video clearly showed Monturio’s SUV running over the frail woman. That changed the tenor of the investigation, a police officer testified.

Eleonora Mazariegos, center, and Dora Gallardo at an August press conference at which they talked about their mother, Romelia Gallardo. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

The driver’s actions

Other testimony at the trial gave a more nuanced picture of Monturio’s actions. Monturio, who was going to be laid off from her human resources job at a biotech company, did go to her job interview less than a block from LBJ Apartments. When she turned on her cellphone after the interview, a message from her husband said police were seeking her.

She went to Cambridge police headquarters and told officers she didn’t know what had happened. Police arrested her after first assuring her she would not be arrested, according to testimony. She gave police her phone voluntarily; police later obtained a search warrant for it but did not conduct a forensic search.

Monturio took the stand Monday and calmly described seeing nothing in front of her when she slowly pulled out of the parking lot on Erie Street. “Why did you move forward?” Hoopes asked her. “I did not see anything,” she said. At another point, she said: “I did not feel anything different than when I went in [to the parking lot].”

Shortly after driving onto Erie Street, “I caught sight of a woman on the ground” in the lot, Monturio said. She stopped the car, went back to the woman and asked if she could help, she said. “She was unconscious, so I called 911,” Monturio said. When the dispatcher asked what happened, “I said I have no idea,” Monturio said. She not only answered the dispatcher’s questions but relayed his instructions to the people who had gathered around Gallardo, she said.

Finally, Monturio said, “I had relayed all the information I could.” The people around her “were ‘Okay, we’ve got this.’ There was nothing more I could do.”

During 25 minutes of cross-examination, assistant district attorney Ashlee Mastrangelo couldn’t shake Monturio from her claim that she didn’t know she had hit Gallardo.

“Reasonable doubt”

Hoopes, whose law firm specializes in white-collar crime and other high-end legal work, is a well-known Boston trial lawyer. Hoopes had experts create a simulation of the accident that indicated Monturio couldn’t have seen Gallardo, check Monturio’s phone for deletions (there were none), confirm that GPS searches misidentified the address of the LBJ Apartments parking lot and testify about psychological processes that convinced people that something they hadn’t seen or felt didn’t happen.

Yet in the end, Frank said he decided the case based on evidence from the transcript of Monturio’s 911 call and the JFK Apartments surveillance video.

He cited court decisions holding that to convict a defendant of leaving the scene of a personal injury, the prosecution must prove that the defendant had “actual knowledge” of a collision. “The issue is not what a reasonable person would know but what this defendant actually did know,” Frank said.

“The court has to make a decision about a defendant’s state of mind” yet “it’s impossible to look into a defendant’s mind,” the judge said. That means the court has to “look at the defendant’s actions and words,” Frank said.

Based on that, “this court does have a reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s knowledge,” Frank said. And he acquitted Monturio.

Paired cases

It was the second major pedestrian fatality in Cambridge during one month in 2018, and in each the driver was acquitted of motor vehicle charges. The other case occurred on Oct. 5 when a dump truck backing through the intersection of Putnam Avenue and Magazine Street rolled over Jie Zhao, 27, who was crossing the intersection behind the truck.

In both cases state police investigators concluded that the victims were to blame. The investigation of Gallardo’s death found that the collision occurred because she walked in front of the SUV without ensuring that Monturio could see her. In Zhao’s case, the state police concluded that the accident wouldn’t have happened if she had crossed with the light and had been more attentive.

Families of Gallardo and Zhao have filed civil lawsuits against the drivers in Middlesex Superior Court. Safety advocates have called for changes in vehicle size and design to protect pedestrians and have said SUVs and other large vehicles are designed to keep occupants safe from other cars and not to ensure safety for pedestrians and cyclists. The dump truck that killed Zhao was equipped with a camera on the back but it wasn’t working and wasn’t required to be operable.