Prosecutors say former Iraqi War veteran Eric Cox was carrying twice the legal amount of alcohol in his blood when he ran a red light in east Charlotte three years ago and crashed into H’luon Siu’s car, killing her and seriously injuring her 4-year-old son.
During the opening day of Cox’s second-degree murder trial Friday, prosecutors told the jury that in late November 2011, the former Marine already was under a judge’s order from a DWI conviction the year before: Cox could drink, but he had to keep his blood-alcohol level at .04 or below.
Instead, Assistant District Attorney Heidi Perlman said in her opening argument, Cox went bar-hopping on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Sometime after 2 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 28, he got behind the wheel of his Chevy Tahoe in the University area and headed south.
Prosecutors told the jury that Cox’s blood-alcohol level was at least .17 at the time. That’s four times the limit set by the judge in his earlier DWI case.
Perlman said Cox was speeding when he ran a red light at The Plaza and East Sugar Creek Road, plowed into Siu, who had just picked up son Khai after finishing the second shift at Metrolina Greenhouses.
She died almost instantly. Her son, who had been sleeping in the backseat of his mother’s Nissan Altima, suffered brain damage and other injuries from which he has only partly recovered.
Perlman and co-prosecutor Max Diaz played a frantic 911 call from a witness at the crash.
“Somebody is killed in a car,” and a baby is injured, a woman tells the operator.
“Is the baby breathing?” the operator asks.
All the while, witnesses said Cox stood by his SUV. When asked by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Jacques Morris if he had been drinking, Cox repeatedly said no, the officer testified Friday.
But Morris testified that Cox asked him again and again to examine the damage to his Tahoe.
The 34-year-old defendant faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted on the charges of murder, DWI and committing serious injury by vehicle.
Discharged from the Marines a decade ago, Cox appeared in court with a decided military bearing – gray suit, white shirt, burgundy tie and short-cropped brown hair.
With his family sitting behind him, Cox showed little emotion as he listened to the testimony. When his defense team declined to give an opening statement, the prosecution dominated the trial’s first day, portraying Cox as reckless and uncaring.
In many ways, the day was dominated by the woman who was not in the courtroom and the little boy who was.
Siu came to Charlotte as a 13-year-old wife, a refugee from Vietnam who soon ended her marriage after settling in her new country.
She and Chris Cook met at Metrolina Greenhouses, had a son and shared custody.
Cook testified that Khai had grown up as a healthy little boy who liked to run, kick a soccer ball and play with other neighborhood kids.
On Friday, Khai walked into court holding his grandmother’s hand but still staggering as he walked.
He had a tube in his trachea, and a male nurse wheeled in an oxygen canister the boy still needs from time to time to breathe.
Cook said his son was in a coma for two weeks after the accident, and was wheelchair-bound for five months more. The first-grader remains under daily nursing care and receives therapy as he relearns to walk.
At Perlman’s request, Cook took Khai’s hand, and father and son slowly walked together past the eight men and four women of the jury.
The boy spent the rest of the day with his grandmother and nurse, occasionally pointing toward his father as he testified.
Under questioning from defense attorney Bill Powers, Cook acknowledged that he has sued both Cox and Siu’s estate for damages and the cost of his son’s care.
But Superior Court Judge Yvonne Evans blocked Powers from questioning Cook over whether his son had been properly restrained in the car the night of the crash.
When the prosecution called Morris – the first officer on the scene – Powers pummeled him for information about the wreck scene that Morris said he couldn’t recall.
Why had Morris gone straight to Cox’s car? Powers asked. Why did he never check Siu’s vehicle for injuries.
“Is there a reason you don’t recall some of these facts?” Powers, seemingly exasperated, said at one point.
Outside the courtroom, Morris said this was the first time he had testified in a homicide case.
He said he had tried to anticipate the questions the defense would pose but had been surprised by almost all of them.
But in the courtroom, he had been clear on at least one thing – the anger, he said, he felt for Cox.
“I was mad,” he told the jury.
“Why?” Perlman asked.
“I was mad because a woman had died ... a kid was hurt, and he wanted me to look at the damage to his car. He was more worried about his car than he was another human being. And that made me mad.”