After Multiple Delays, Winter Trial Set to Begin

By Beacon Staff

The trial for an Evergreen teenager who faces two counts of deliberate homicide after a car crash in 2009 begins this week, with jury selection on Monday and possibly Tuesday, followed immediately by opening statements from the prosecution and defense.

Justine Winter, 17, appeared in court last weekend before District Court Judge Katherine Curtis for her pre-trial conference with her attorneys, David Stufft and Max Battle.

Prosecutors accuse Winter of intentionally driving her southbound car across the centerline in a suicide attempt in March of 2009, striking Erin Thompson’s northbound vehicle. Thompson, 35, and her son Caden Odell, 13, died in the crash.

Investigators concluded that the crash was intentional after reading text messages sent between Winter, who was 16 at the time, and her boyfriend.

While the hearing’s purpose was to go over the final logistics before trial, it marked a milestone for a case heavy with motions, delays and media attention over the past two years.

Curtis agreed to delay the trial from its Nov. 8, 2010, starting date last year after Winter’s defense asked for more time to interview witnesses. Before that, the defense attempted to get Winter’s trial moved out of Flathead County, citing a potentially tainted jury pool due to incendiary media reports and online comments reacting to those reports.

The prosecution argued, however, that Winter caused the negative attention by filing a civil suit in July against the Thompson estate, the contractors and construction companies that were working on the highway where the crash occurred.

In November, Curtis ruled that the trial would remain in the Flathead unless a suitable jury could not be found. According to the pre-trial proceedings on Jan. 19, the court scheduled 100 potential jurors to be interviewed on Jan. 24, and 75 more on Jan. 25 if necessary.

As part of the selection process, also called voir dire, Curtis told the attorneys on both sides that there would be heavy emphasis on the potential jurors’ prior knowledge of the case, if any.

“I will do a significant amount of voir dire myself,” Curtis said.

Once the jury selection process is complete, the trial will move on to opening statements.

Winter’s attorneys have also attempted to remove Curtis from the trial. The Montana Supreme Court denied their initial attempt in late December, saying the attorneys concerns could be dealt with in the appeal process once the trial is over.

However, Stufft requested that the high court reconsider its decision in a Jan. 11 petition, alleging that Curtis has personal bias and prejudice against his client, along with allegations of ex-parte communication with the Flathead County Attorney’s Office.

Curtis ruled last August that Winter would be tried as an adult on the two deliberate homicide charges stemming from the crash.

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