Attorneys for Evergreen teenager Justine Winter presented the bulk of their case to the jury Tuesday, including a new interpretation of the text message exchange that occurred minutes before a fatal car crash in 2009.
The defense asserted that the messages were conversational rather than suicidal.
Seventeen-year-old Winter is accused of two counts of deliberate homicide for her involvement in a car crash on March 19, 2009, that killed Erin Thompson, 35, and her son, Caden Odell, 13.
Investigators charged Winter after reading several text messages she and her then boyfriend, Ryan Langford, had exchanged just minutes before the crash.
The texts, presented by the prosecution as evidence and read in court last Friday, included messages such as, “Goodbye ryan … just know that i am telling the truth when i tell you i love you. my last words. I Love You Ryan!” and “if i won. I would have you. And i wouldn’t crash my car.”
According to the prosecution, the texts indicated that Winter was suicidal and intentionally drove her Pontiac Grand Am across the U.S. Highway 93 centerline and into Thompson’s Subaru.
According linguist Robert Leonard, however, the texts were part of an ongoing conversation between Langford and Winter in which they talked about killing themselves as a power play for control in the relationship.
“It clearly is not a suicide note,” Leonard said.
While he noted that law enforcement was right to initially focus on the text conversation in light of the accident, Leonard said further analysis of the exchange shows typical teenage hyperbole.
“The analysis of things that seem clear very often shows us we misunderstood,” he said.
By introducing “suicide posturing” into the conversation, Leonard said Winter was trying to up the ante and attempt to get the response she wanted from her boyfriend. His responses, such as “You kill yourself i kill myself So come on and don’t be selfish,” deflated her attempt to gain the upper-hand in the argument, Leonard said.
During cross-examination by Deputy County Attorney Lori Adams, Leonard said he did not know exactly what was going through the teenagers’ minds the night of the crash, but stuck by his analysis.
“I analyze language; I am not a mind reader,” Leonard said.
Lenoard, a linguistics professor who also works for federal agencies on threat assessments, said that when considering a threat, it is important to know who the threat is coming from. He said that the assertion that Winter became not only suicidal but homicidal that night in her car did not fit the research on her that he had reviewed.
Scott Poland, a licensed school psychologist who specializes in suicide studies, agreed with Leonard’s assessment of Winter.
“I had absolutely no indication or evidence that Justine was someone who put herself in danger,” Leonard said, adding later, “I did not see the pattern of youth suicide I look for based on my experience.”
Poland said he came to this conclusion after reading reports on Winter from social workers, doctors, linguists, teachers and court transcripts from previous hearings.
In a typical suicide, Poland said the victim experiences multiple, devastating events in their life, along with usually suffering from a mental illness like depression.
“A lot of things have to go wrong at once,” he said.
And while Poland acknowledged that Winter had some family problems at home, he said that sort of situation was probably not severe enough to make her suicidal.
“You don’t become suicidal because your parents are having some difficulty,” Poland said.
Adams then asked Poland if he knew what Winter’s frame of mind had been on March 19, 2009, to which he replied that he did not.
“Nobody knows what Justine Winter’s mental state was on March 19, 2009,” Adams said.
The defense also presented the jury with a different interpretation of how the crash happened through the testimony of engineer Scott Curry.
Curry, who spent upwards of six hours on the stand from Monday to Tuesday, said that through his crash reconstruction analysis, investigation and document review, he concluded that the crash happened in Winter’s southbound lane rather than Thompson’s lane.
Previous testimony from Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Glen Barcus indicated that the point of impact had been in Thompson’s lane and that Winter had crossed the centerline.
But Curry testified that he found no markers from Winter’s car in Thompson’s northbound lane. He also said that the bridge deck was wet that night, which could have led to fewer tire marks from non-studded tires, like those of the Subaru, on the concrete.
Curry also said he found that Thompson’s Subaru model had been recalled due to the master brake cylinder not working well in cold weather.
“It actually had created some accidents when people hadn’t been able to stop as fast,” Curry said.
County Attorney Ed Corrigan questioned Curry on his qualifications in accident reconstruction, noting that Curry’s resume lists eight reconstruction projects, two of which were listed twice.
Curry said that his training as an engineer and training on car accidents he received while working for the U.S. Forest Service qualified him to reconstruct this crash.
The prosecution is expected to present eight rebuttal witnesses on Wednesday, which should complete evidence presentation. Closing arguments are expected on Thursday, after which the jurors will begin their deliberations.
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