Closing arguments concluded late Tuesday evening in the manslaughter trial of Gabrielle Nestande, and jury deliberation will continue Wednesday morning. The prosecution says the 25-year-old former legislative aide struck and killed Courtney Griffin with her black BMW in the early hours of May 27, 2011, after a night of drinking on Rainey Street.
Earlier in the day, Nestande took the witness stand, telling the jury through tears she takes responsibility for Griffin’s death, but at no point knew she struck a human being. She testified she looked down at her phone to check her alarm for five to ten seconds, “and in an instant,” her windshield was shattered.
Nestande eventually drove back to the apartment of her boyfriend, William Marchbanks, and told him someone threw a rock at her windshield. Hours later, she told co-workers and friends she hit a deer.
But in closing statements, Assistant District Attorney Mary Farrington said this wasn’t a story about Nestande, but a “story about Courtney Griffin, the person that isn’t here.”
Jurors must decide first if Nestande is guilty of intoxication manslaughter, and if she is not, they must then consider manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide. The difference between those two involves the use of recklessness, as listed in the manslaughter charge. Criminally negligent homicide means that Nestande did not know the risks of getting behind the wheel.
All 12 jurors must agree beyond a reasonable doubt that Nestande is criminally responsible for Griffin’s death, and failed to stop and render aid.
Farrington argued that the failure to stop and render aid charge was a “no brainer,” because Griffin was in obvious need of medical assistance.
"If nothing else, she needed someone to hold her hand so she didn't have to die alone," Farrington said.
When defense attorney Perry Minton approached the jury, he noted Nestande’s emotion on the stand during Tuesday’s proceedings.
He said “the passion, the sorrow” Nestande showed on the stand was not indicative that she deserves to be absolved of wrongdoing.
"One of the things I am always sorry about in cases like this is that we get it backwards when we hear for the defendant,” he said.
Minton told the jury it is not their responsibility to act on emotion, but rather the lack of evidence in the case, particularly hard facts that she was intoxicated.
"I admit, it's easy to be angry at her," Minton said. “But, if it ain't out there, it ain't out there."
Nestande was arrested in the Capitol several hours after the accident, but a blood alcohol test was not performed. Defense attorney Sam Bassett says this is because the lead investigator saw no signs of previous intoxication or a hangover. He argued if Nestande was stumbling drunk at Clive Bar on Rainey Street the night before, as described by other witnesses, she wouldn’t have made it to the work on time at all.
Bassett also called on statements made by the defense’s accident reconstruction expert who testified even a sober person would have difficulty seeing a pedestrian on Exposition Boulevard that night.
“That is more than reasonable doubt," Bassett said. "That is not guilty."
The final words of the night came from Assistant District Attorney Allison Wetzel, who said it was confusing to her the defendant wanted to take responsibility for Griffin’s death, but was asking for a not guilty verdict.
She pointed to a call Nestande made from jail to her sister and mother which Wetzel says is an illustration of her “selfish, self-centered” personality.
On the call, Nestande says she “knew what happened,” and was “so scared she left.” She told her sister she was worried about having to spend the night in jail.
Wetzel said Nestande came from a “culture of entitlement,” where she believed she was invisible from consequences. Working in a fast-paced, glamorous job where drinks were often bought for them, she said it was a group that “worked hard, partied hard.”
It was that perceived invisibility Wetzel says that was fueling Nestande’s tears on the stand--she was crying because she was in this predicament, not because she felt sorrow for killing a human being.
“It is not normal to have drink after drink and get behind the wheel,” Wetzel said, “Courtney paid a price for that.”
When it came to Nestande’s changing account that she hit a deer on the morning of May 27, 2011, Wetzel said, “She did kill a dear, I agree with that. A dear friend, a dear sister and a dear daughter."
If a guilty verdict is reached on any charge, the jury will decide Nestande's sentence, not the judge. Nestande and her defense team chose to have the jury make set the punishment before trial started.
The jury deliberated until 10 p.m. Tuesday, and will reconvene at 9 a.m. Wednesday.