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Appeals court ruling could aid Santa Rosa woman on trial for second time in deadly crash

An appeals court ruling in a Southern California case that would prevent an “all or nothing” approach by deliberating jurors could factor in the retrial of a Santa Rosa woman charged with second-degree murder in a deadly crash.

Fourth Appellate District justices ruled jurors in a similar case should have been informed that a defendant had already been tried and convicted of lesser charges, eliminating any concern that the person would go unpunished without a guilty verdict.

The decision, announced Sept. 16, will play a role in the Sonoma County Superior Court case of Heather Howell, 30, who is being tried for a second time for a 2012 crash that killed Jesse Garcia, 56, also of Santa Rosa.

So far, jurors have not been told that Howell was tried last year and convicted of reckless driving and gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. Jurors deadlocked 9-3 in favor of conviction on the murder charge.

Howell is facing 10 years in prison on previous charges, but 15 years to life if she is convicted of second-degree murder.

With the soon-to-be published appellate ruling, the panel in the second trial will learn of the previous verdict before they begin deliberations sometime today.

Legal observers said it could benefit Howell because jurors would not feel obligated to convict her.

“They won’t think they’re letting the girl walk,” said Santa Rosa defense lawyer Walter Rubenstein, who has been watching the Howell trial. “It’s very fortunate the ruling came out when it did.”

The appeals decision came in the case of Larry Jason Batchelor, who was tried twice in a 2009 drunken-driving crash that killed his passenger, Idalee Mofsie.

Like Howell, Batchelor was charged both with gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and second-degree murder under an implied malice theory triggered by a prior drunken-driving conviction.

At his first trial, the jury found him guilty of manslaughter but deadlocked 8-4 in favor of conviction on murder. Prosecutors retried him on the lone murder count and won a conviction.

Batchelor appealed, arguing jurors at the second trial were left with the false impression he would face no penalty if they did not find him guilty of murder.

Justices agreed, finding the omission was a reasonable explanation for why the second jury convicted him of murder while the first jury did not.

The three-judge panel found prosecutors added to the mistake by telling jurors it was the only count and urging them to “hold him accountable for killing someone.”

They suggested prosecutors can’t get a new trial without disclosing the results of the first.

“In other words, the people may not have their cake and eat it too,” the court wrote.

Lawyers in Howell’s case discussed the implications of Batchelor outside the presence of the jury Tuesday.

After listening to both sides, Judge Robert LaForge said he would advise jurors of the previous verdict at some point. Details such as the exact timing were not available.

Both sides rested Tuesday afternoon.

Howell was first tried last year.

Prosecutors said she was drinking on July 14, 2012, when 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 slammed into the back of Garcia’s Triumph convertible. Garcia was killed after he was trapped under his burning car.

Jurors were unanimous on the manslaughter and reckless driving charges but hung 9-3 in favor of conviction on second-degree murder.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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