Heather Howell’s demeanor didn’t do her any favors.
The 31-year-old Santa Rosa woman, convicted in September of second-degree murder in the 2012 DUI death of an innocent man whose car she struck while angrily speeding after her boyfriend’s motorcycle, was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison Monday.
A murder conviction for a DUI-related death is relatively rare but one prosecutors seek in particularly egregious cases such as Howell’s, District Attorney Jill Ravitch said. County prosecutors have won at least a half-dozen such convictions, and at least two defendants currently face DUI-related murder charges.
In court Monday morning, Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Robert LaForge minced no words in his assessment of Howell, whom he observed during two jury trials for the July 2012 fiery crash that killed 56-year-old Jesse Garcia.
“I had the best seat in the house,” LaForge told Howell after she pleaded for a second chance, a chance she said she wanted to use to help others through speaking in public about her tribulations.
“From my perspective, I see things that others may not,” he said. “I see defendants’ actions during the trial their attorneys don’t even see.
“I saw what I believe to be tears that were not genuine. I believe that there were times throughout the trial when Ms. Howell would cry – I’m not sure, again, if real – to garner some sort of sympathy from the jury.”
He wasn’t swayed by Howell’s handwritten statement, which she read aloud from a piece of notebook paper during the hearing, saying she was remorseful and was sorry for causing the Garcia family pain.
“It’s hard for me to ignore what I saw for weeks: some sort of manipulation, that was inappropriate – and was not someone expressing sorrow for anyone, except themselves,” he said.
Witnesses testified during the trials that Howell pumped her fist, yelled “yee-haw” out her car window as she chased her boyfriend’s motorcycle, and at one point held her hand out the window in the shape of a gun.
Jurors, who took just 4½ hours to convict Howell after the second trial, said they didn’t like her attitude in the immediate aftermath of the fatal crash and during a recorded police interview.
The jury convicted Howell of second-degree murder after a previous jury convicted her on two lesser counts but hung on the more serious charge.
Howell had used cocaine, marijuana and had a 0.11 percent blood-alcohol level when she got behind the wheel of her car, angry at her boyfriend and chasing him almost six miles down busy streets, running red lights and passing other cars on the shoulder, prosecutors argued.
On Hall Road, Howell slammed into the back of Garcia’s 1969 Triumph convertible. The small sports car flipped, trapping Garcia, who died under the burning car. Howell and her boyfriend, Tony Kraus, weren’t injured.
About 10 members of Garcia’s extended family attended the hearing but declined to speak to reporters. In two letters read aloud in court, the family spoke of the heartbreak of losing their beloved husband, father, uncle and friend.
Garcia, a Santa Rosa resident who worked as a manager at a Richmond metal recycling company, was a hardworking, selfless, generous man of faith, “the polar opposite” of Howell, they said.