DUI suspect pleads not guilty in Garden Grove crash that killed 9-year-old and her mother

SANTA ANA, Calif. (KABC) -- The man accused of driving drunk and causing a New Year's Day pile-up on the 22 Freeway that killed a 9-year-old girl and her mother has pleaded not guilty in the case.

Melvin Branch, 30, appeared in front of a judge for the first time on Monday, facing vehicular manslaughter charges.

He is accused of driving while intoxicated and causing a four-car crash east of Valley View. Payton Castillo and her mother, 33-year-old Jolene Gardner, and a third person were in a pickup truck that overturned in the pileup. The girl died at the scene, the CHP said. Gardner was pronounced dead at UC Irvine Medical Center.

Branch's attorney, Mark Fredrick, entered a not-guilty plea for his client.

After officers arrested Branch at the scene, the Orange County District Attorney rejected the case for insufficient evidence. He was re-arrested and charged over the weekend after prosecutors reviewed new reports.

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The Orange County District Attorney's Office is declining to file charges for now against a driver accused of a DUI crash that killed a 9-year-old girl and her 33-year-old mother o

Fredrick said Branch turned himself in.

"He's expressed nothing but total grief and sadness for the family and the tragic loss of life in this case," he said.

In a criminal complaint, officers report Branch had a blood-alcohol level of .11.

"Those can really have problems with their accuracy so at this point, I don't have confidence with what the alleged blood alcohol result is," Fredrick said.

Fredrick wants to see the report and the results of a blood test. He said this is out of character for Branch, whose bail was set at $300,000.

"He's a person who's never been in trouble before. He is a person who was shocked and surprised by his treatment on the night of the incident, and he was extremely scared," Fredrick added.

If convicted, Branch faces a maximum of 20 years and eight months in prison. He's due back in court Jan. 25.

A GoFundMe page has been created to help pay for the victims' funeral services.
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