Heather Howell acted recklessly and dangerously in a 2012 vehicle chase that killed an innocent man in a fiery crash, her lawyer acknowledged in court Wednesday.
But her behavior wasn’t tantamount to murder, defense attorney Kristine Burk told jurors.
On the contrary, prosecutor Anne Masterson argued. Howell knew her actions were dangerous and didn’t care.
Howell, 30, knew she had used cocaine, marijuana and had been drinking when she angrily got behind the wheel of her car, chasing her boyfriend almost six miles down busy streets, running red lights and passing other cars on the shoulder, Masterson told jurors.
On Hall Road, Howell slammed into the back of 56-year-old Jesse Garcia’s 1969 Triumph convertible. The car flipped, trapping Garcia, who died under his burning car.
“She murdered him that day,” Masterson said. “She may not have intended to kill him. She may not have intended to hurt anyone. But she murdered him.”
It’s the second trial for Howell, who last year was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving charges. But jurors deadlocked 9-3 in favor of conviction on second-degree murder.
Prosecutors sought a second trial on the most severe charge, exposing Howell to a potential 15-years-to-life sentence.
Jurors were told Wednesday before they began deliberations that Howell has been convicted of two unspecified felonies based on the same facts, but nothing regarding the murder charge. They were not told that the Santa Rosa woman faces 10 years in prison on the vehicular manslaughter charge.
In closing arguments Wednesday, Burk argued that Howell’s actions equal involuntary manslaughter, which would add nothing to her potential sentence. A voluntary manslaughter conviction could add about four years to her current exposure, Burk said.
Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Robert LaForge informed the jurors of Howell’s convictions based on a new appellate court ruling in a similar case in Southern California. The court ruled that jurors should have been told of the previous convictions to eliminate any concern that the defendant wouldn’t go unpunished if they failed to reach a guilty verdict.
The argument for murder hinges on what Masterson said were Howell’s “conscious disregard for human life” and her “implied malice” triggered by a previous drunken-driving conviction.
Howell sat at the defense table, wearing a cardigan sweater and glasses with her hair in a bun. She dabbed at her face with a tissue, often shaking her head at Masterson’s characterizations of her mindset on July 14 two years ago.
Howell had been drinking that day, and had also used cocaine and smoked pot, before she got into a fight with her boyfriend and chased him in her car when he left her Harmon Lane home on his motorcycle.
Witnesses testified the two sped through traffic on Fulton Road, weaving between cars and running lights. They turned onto Hall Road, where Howell’s car slammed into Garcia’s Triumph, trapping him in a fire.
Witnesses said Howell held her hand out the window in the shape of a gun, pumped her fist and at one point yelled “Yee haw!” as she pursued her boyfriend.
Because Howell had taken a first-offender DUI course, she knew she could face murder charges if she killed someone while drunk again, Masterson said. She knew she was risking people’s lives if she drove while drunk or high.