KALISPELL - A jury of eight men and four women decided Thursday night that an Evergreen teenager, after a fight with her boyfriend, deliberately steered her car into the wrong lane on U.S. Highway 93 in 2009 in a suicide attempt that took the lives of everyone involved in the ensuing crash except her own.
A pregnant woman and her 13-year-old son headed home from a school concert, and traveling in the vehicle Justine Winter ran into head-on, died in a collision that was described as "horrific."
Winter, 16 at the time of the crash but tried as an adult, showed no emotion as the jury delivered guilty verdicts on two counts of deliberate homicide.
She was immediately taken into custody.
The jurors deliberated approximately 5 1/2 hours after getting the case shortly after 1 p.m.
Earlier, lawyers delivered their last best arguments in a case that claimed the lives of Caden Odell and his mother, 35-year-old Erin Thompson.
A ruling by District Court Judge Katherine Curtis did not allow Thompson's pregnancy to be brought up at any point during the 7 1/2-day trial.
Winter, now 17, suffered a traumatic brain injury in the wreck and spent 47 days in the intensive care unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle after the Pontiac Grand Am she was driving plowed into a Subaru Forester being driven by Thompson.
In his closing arguments, defense attorney Max Battle urged jurors to keep the two tragedies "from turning into three."
"Where's the evidence that Justine knowingly engaged in an activity that would take someone's life?" Battle told jurors. "It's not there."
There was the eyewitness whose statements to law enforcement never mentioned Winter's car swerving into the wrong lane until more than a year after the crash, Battle said, and not until authorities had speculated publicly that's what had happened.
"That's important," said the defense attorney, who went on to argue that photos that showed Thompson's body hanging out of the rear window of the Subaru disprove eyewitness Richard Poeppel's contention that he opened her door, and the woman expired in his arms.
"I'm not going to argue he committed perjury," Battle said, adding later that "his reality of what he saw evolved over time."
"Mr. Poeppel didn't see what he told you," Battle said. "He may believe it, but he didn't see it."
Battle questioned the state's assertion that Winter's car was traveling 85 mph at the time of the crash, noting another witness's testimony that he was going only 60 to 65 mph when he passed the defendant shortly before the collision occurred.
He wondered why the state hadn't offered into evidence any report from the state Crime Lab about the speedometer from Winter's Grand Am, even though the speedometer had been sent there. He reminded jurors the bridge was undergoing repairs at the time of the nighttime crash, and there was no centerline or fog lines painted on the pavement, nor cones to guide the traffic.
"You have five accident reconstructionists, and none of them agree with each other," Battle told the panel. "It's not the defense against the prosecution. Even prosecution witnesses don't agree with other prosecution witnesses. That's reasonable doubt, all by itself."
He pointed to expert testimony from defense witnesses who said that, despite text messages sent from Winter to the boy who had just broken up with her in which she threatened to crash her car and kill herself, she showed none of the signs of being either homicidal or suicidal.
"You didn't hear one single negative thing of any substance about Justine before this accident," Battle said, noting she was a straight-A student who was well-liked by her teachers at Glacier High School. "This was a well-adjusted girl. This was a terrible, terrible accident."
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Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan argued it was entirely reasonable for the jury to come to the conclusion that a teenager who had problems at home and had just been dumped by a boyfriend who had meant the world to her, and who was threatening to the boy via text messages that she was going to crash her car and kill herself minutes earlier, had tried to do just that.
"It's never been the state's case that Miss Winter made a conscious decision to go out and kill somebody," Corrigan said. "You have a young lady of 16 who gets in a fight with her boyfriend, and as a teenager reacts emotionally to the situation - she acts impulsively, without taking the consequences of her action into consideration.
"She engages in a course of conduct that is very dangerous and potentially lethal," Corrigan went on. "It may not have been her intention to kill anyone, but because of her actions two people are dead."
Corrigan encouraged jurors to boil the nearly two weeks of testimony down to two points.
"A lot of expert testimony tends to make things more complicated and confusing than is necessary," he told them.
First, he said, decide whether the evidence points to the accident occurring in the northbound lane, where Thompson's vehicle was traveling at about 30 mph, or the southbound lane, the direction Winter was headed (and where the defense maintained the initial contact took place).
"If it was in Justine's lane, you're done," Corrigan said. "Justine is not guilty."
But if they concluded the wreck happened in the northbound lane - and Corrigan spent a good deal of his closing going back over photographs from the scene he said proved that - the county attorney said they had to consider one more question.
Why, Corrigan asked, had Winter's car crossed into the wrong lane?
"What motivated Justine?" he asked. "What was her state of mind?"
Corrigan didn't spend a great deal of time going back over the several text messages that went back and forth between Winter and her former boyfriend, Ryan Langford, that were a major point of the prosecution's case.
But he did single out the last one Langford sent to Winter.
"Yeah, well deal with it," Corrigan read from the message. "You killing yourself is just another way of running away from your problems."
"He basically tells her to jump off a cliff," Corrigan told the jury. "He never hears from her again, and within four minutes she's in the wrong lane of traffic and two people are dead."
He reiterated the state's contentions that Winter had just threatened to crash her car, accelerated as she crossed into the wrong lane, didn't brake until the very last second before impact and was not wearing a seat belt.
"Those facts should tell you it was not an accident," Corrigan said. "We don't know why she didn't crash into the bridge, or go home and take pills. We do know she went into the wrong lane, and took the lives of two other people. The reasonable conclusion, as hard as it is, is that she is guilty of two counts of homicide."
Curtis' courtroom was packed during closing arguments Thursday, with upward of 90 people - many of them friends and family of both the victims and the defendant - listening along with the jury.