The homicide trial for Evergreen teenager Justine Winter reached its halfway point Friday as the defense began calling witnesses, but not before the prosecution presented pivotal evidence: text messages sent between Winter and her boyfriend on the night of a car crash that killed two people in 2009.
Winter, who was 16 years old at the time, is accused of intentionally driving her car across the centerline of U.S. Highway 93 north of Kalispell and crashing into Erin Thompson’s Subaru. Thompson, 35, and her son Caden Odell, 13, died in the collision.
Investigators charged Winter with two counts of deliberate homicide after reading text messages she sent to her then boyfriend, Ryan Langford, just before the crash that suggested she was suicidal.
In Flathead County District Court, Det. Kipp Tkachyk read the texts aloud from the stand as the jury followed along on their own copies of exchange.
“Goodbye ryan … just know that i am telling the truth when i tell you i love you. my last words. I Love You Ryan!” Winter wrote at 7:51 p.m. on March 19, 2009.
“Yeah, whatever you say … You win i lose Thats what it all comes down to” Langford replied three minutes later.
A minute later, Winter wrote: “if i won. I would have you. And i wouldn’t crash my car.”
Winter wrote at 8:01 p.m. that she couldn’t change who she is, adding, “i can’t change what happens in my life but i will do all i can to make all the difference. because its ending. bye ryan.”
Two minutes later, Langford replied: “You kill yourself i kill myself So come on and don’t be selfish.”
They sent more messages about their fight, with Winter writing “this is life or death. it shows you would rather me die because i want to kill myself. good bye ryan. I Love You,” at 8:16 p.m.
Her final text came at 8:19 p.m., which prosecutors say was six minutes before the crash on Stillwater Bridge: “Because i wanted to kill myself. I wanted you out of my car so i could do what you told me I couldn’t. Because i lost you1 and its my fualt.”
Langford’s reply at 8:21 p.m. told Winter to grow up and deal with their situation, ending with “You killing yourself is just another way for you to run away.”
After the text messages were entered into court testimony, the defense began piecing together its case, starting first with witnesses who described Winter’s personality before the accident.
Randy Winter, Justine’s father, described his daughter as an even-keeled teenager who was not into drugs or alcohol and got excellent grades.
“She was an outgoing person. She enjoyed doing things with other people,” Randy Winter said. “It was kind of like she was the model kid you didn’t have to worry about.”
Other witnesses described Winter in similar ways. Doug Mason, an art teacher at Glacier High School who had Winter in at least three classes, said she was good kid when she was at school.
“She’s a little bit quiet, a little bit shy, but a really nice girl,” Mason said.
Deputy County Attorney Lori Adams asked Mason if he takes suicide threats from students seriously, to which he replied, “very seriously.” If he knows of a suicide threat, Mason said he would tell school administrators.
Mason said he was unaware of any suicide threats from Winter.
Denise Langford, Ryan’s mother, said she spent time with Winter at family dinners and while playing board games or watching movies. She described Winter as “a very kind, very thoughtful, extremely intelligent and very compassionate person.”
During his testimony, Randy Winter described his daughter as someone who would always wear her seat belt and made sure everyone else in the car did so as well.
Whether Winter was wearing her seat belt is still a matter of contention among the prosecution and the defense. Several state witnesses have testified that her seat belt was not cut, torn, stretched or bloody and was found locked in a straight, vertical position, indicating she was not wearing it at the time of the crash.
However, the defense contends that emergency personnel reported seeing the belt buckled. Randy Winter said after he identified his daughter in Kalispell Medical Regional Center’s trauma room that she was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
There, after a surgery on her liver, Randy Winter said he saw bruising on his daughter’s lower abdomen, which he said looked similar to contusions left by seat belts that he’s seen in his work at the Evergreen Fire Department.
Winter became emotional during her father’s testimony, and was seen writing as multiple witnesses took the stand.
The trial will continue on Monday, and attorneys on both sides expect to wrap up evidence presentation by Wednesday.
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