A Sonoma County Superior Court jury this afternoon convicted a Santa Rosa woman of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and reckless driving, but could not reach a verdict on a second-degree murder charge in connection with a crash that killed another driver last year. The jury deadlocked 9-3 in favor of convicting 29-year-old Heather Anne Howell of second-degree murder. When Judge Robert LaForge first asked the jury if further deliberations could lead to a verdict on the murder charge, one juror said yes, and the panel resumed deliberations around 10:30 a.m. They then returned to court just after noon to report that they were “hopelessly deadlocked” on the charge. A juror who identified himself as Bill from Petaluma said jurors disagreed about whether the prosecution had proved that Howell’s actions constituted malice aforethought.
The prosecution alleged that Howell had alcohol, cocaine and marijuana in her system when, after an argument, she recklessly pursued her boyfriend Anthony Kraus’ motorcycle in her 2001 Acura on July 14, 2012. The crash happened at about 4:45 p.m. on Hall Road near Mancini Road in unincorporated Sonoma County west of Santa Rosa. Deputy District Attorney Anne Masterson said Howell’s Acura sideswiped a Lexus and then struck the rear of a 1969 Triumph convertible. The Triumph spun around, rolled and caught fire, trapping the driver, 56-year-old Santa Rosa resident Jesse Garcia, Masterson said. Garcia died at the scene. Howell, who has a 2006 conviction for DUI, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.11 percent after the crash, according to the prosecution. Defense attorney Steve Spiegelman said Garcia also had a prior DUI conviction, that and his blood-alcohol level was 0.05 percent after the crash. “We know there was contact between Heather’s car and the Triumph. We don’t know if the Triumph hit Heather’s Acura, if the Lexus knocked the Triumph out of control, or if the Triumph got in the mix (of the pursuit),” Spiegelman said.
Spiegelman said that at the time of the crash, a recall was in effect for the gas cap of the Triumph. He said gas was leaking from the Triumph, and raised the possibility that it was on fire before it crashed. Spiegelman said a major accident investigation team from the California Highway Patrol in Sacramento should have been called to the scene and impounded all the vehicles after the crash. The CHP in Santa Rosa turned the investigation over to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office when it learned the crash might be related to a domestic violence incident. Spiegelman criticized both those law enforcement agencies’ investigations. Howell wiped tears from her cheeks as the verdict was read this afternoon. Masterson said Howell faces up to 10 years on the gross vehicular manslaughter charge alone. No sentencing date was set because the prosecution could re-try Howell on the murder charge, Masterson said. The district attorney’s office has not yet decided whether to do that.
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