A Santa Rosa woman was sentenced this morning to 15 years to life in prison for the second-degree murder of a Windsor man who died in a road rage crash west of Santa Rosa in 2012. Heather Howell, 31, was convicted in September 2013 of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and reckless driving, but the jury deadlocked on a murder charge. The Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office retried Howell for murder and a jury convicted her this September for the second-degree murder of 56-year-old Jessie Garcia.
Howell was chasing her boyfriend Tony Kraus’ motorcycle in her Acura on July 14, 2012, when she sideswiped a Lexus, lost control of her car and struck the back of Garcia’s 1969 Triumph convertible on Hall Road. The Triumph overturned, rolled and caught fire, trapping Garcia beneath it. An autopsy determined he died from inhaling soot and smoke, according to Deputy District Attorney Anne Masterson.
Prosecutors argued Howell was intoxicated and had marijuana and cocaine in her system as she chased her boyfriend after they had an argument that day. Howell’s attorney Kristine Burk told the jury Howell’s negligent and criminal driving amounted to involuntary manslaughter, not murder. She said her client was hysterical at the crash scene, stuck her hand into the burning Triumph to try to free Garcia and asked a firefighter for help. In a letter to the court read by a family friend this morning, Garcia’s widow Diana Garcia said Howell’s behavior was “selfish and irresponsible” and that Howell cared only about herself and her pleasure regardless of the consequences.
Garcia said her husband will never walk their daughter down the aisle at her wedding, never share another anniversary or grow old with her. “This wasn’t just an accident,” she said, noting Howell caused grief and pain to her family because she was angry. Howell offered condolences to the Garcia family. She said no excuse, admission or apology could right the wrong she had done, but she denied rage and anger caused her behavior that day. Howell said her behavior was “careless, inexcusable and out of character” and asked Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Robert LaForge to give her a chance to make a difference in the community by sharing her story and warning others that it could happen to anybody.
“All I need is one chance,” Howell said. Masterson told LaForge the 15 years to life term recommended by the probation department was appropriate and that Howell did act out of anger and compulsion. Burk told the judge it’s possible for someone to act out of character and there is a tendency to “freeze frame someone in their worst moment.” “She is far more compassionate and caring. She’s not the demon she may be portrayed as,” Burk said. LaForge, however, said he observed Howell’s behavior during both trials and said he found her tears were not genuine but intended to curry sympathy with the jury.
“Its hard to ignore what I saw. There was some sort of manipulation that was not appropriate,” LaForge said. He said he believed Howell was feeling sorry for herself. After the hearing, Howell’s father Medford Howell said, “I don’t think this was fair justice. I’m beginning to think there isn’t any justice in America.” Howell said his daughter was stressed out because her mother was dying in the hospital and that he was attending his father’s funeral on the day of the crash. He said his daughter didn’t intend to hurt anyone. “I just don’t think it’s murder,” he said.
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