s
s
Sections
Sections
Search
Subscribe

Attorney for Heather Howell says full facts of road-rage case need airing


The prosecution of a Santa Rosa woman in a fatal road-rage case is like a Hollywood movie in which parts that don't fit the story have been cut out, a defense lawyer said Friday.

The cinematic comparison came in closing arguments in the trial of Heather Anne Howell, 29. She's charged with second-degree murder, reckless driving and gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated in the July 2012 crash that killed Jesse Garcia, 56, also of Santa Rosa.

Her attorney, Steve Spiegelman, accused prosecutors of going for "excitement" and exploiting grisly autopsy photos while relying on inaccurate speed estimates and contaminated blood samples to make their case.

He said they didn't bother to call the one witness who saw the cars seconds before they crashed because her version of events didn't match theirs, he said.

"Anything that varies from the movie ... we don't know what to do with that," Spiegelman told the panel. "It was tunnel vision, right from the beginning."

But Spiegelman didn't dispute the central fact in the case — that Howell rear-ended Garcia's Triumph sports car, which flipped and burned with Garcia trapped inside.

And Deputy District Attorney Anne Masterson offered a slew of witnesses, police statements and crash reconstruction drawings to back up the charges.

Masterson told jurors there are two reasons why Howell's conduct amounted to murder. Howell, who had a 2006 drunken driving conviction, had a blood-alcohol level of .11 percent — well over the legal limit of .08 percent.

Under the law, anyone with a prior DUI who kills someone while they are driving under the influence can be charged with murder.

Also, under an implied malice theory in which Howell acted recklessly without regard for human life, she could be charged with murder, Masterson said.

"But for the grace of God, Jesse Garcia was the only one who got hurt that day," she said.

The July 14, 2012, crash happened after Howell and her boyfriend, Tony Kraus, had gotten into a fight over his infidelity at her Hartman Lane residence. He took off on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and she chased him in her black Acura.

About a dozen witnesses saw the two racing from her Hartman Lane home, southbound on Fulton Road and west on Hall Road before the crash, she said.

Some described Howell as shaking her fist out her window at her boyfriend, blowing multiple red lights and reaching speeds of 80 mph. At one point, a witness described a blonde-haired woman in a black car yelling "Yee-haw!" out her window.

The CHP said she passed a red Lexus on the right shoulder of Hall Road in pursuit of Kraus, lost control and rammed Garcia's TR-6 convertible.

Her actions were fueled by a combination of vodka cranberries, marijuana and cocaine.

"Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," Masterson said in her closing. "It's very clich?and I don't like clich?. But it is what this case is all about."

Spiegelman contends Garcia "inserted himself" in the chase and may have caused the crash. He pointed statements from a Hall Road resident who said Garcia was driving close behind the motorcycle at high speeds, seconds before impact.

Also, he said his own forensic toxicologist proved Howell's blood sample had been contaminated by inadequate refrigeration. And he said witness statements were tainted by newspaper articles.

"Mr. Garcia, he deserves a better investigation into what happened," Spiegelman said. "And Heather Howell, who is here now, she deserves the same."

Howell, who has been in custody since the crash, listened from the defense table before the jury was released late Friday. They begin deliberations Monday morning. She wrote in a notebook and shook her head during parts of the prosecutor's closing. Her father was among about a half-dozen supporters in the audience.

She faces a life prison sentence if convicted of second-degree murder. Jurors were instructed to consider lesser offenses including manslaughter.

It wasn't clear if Garcia's family members were in court.

(You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com)