The attorneys for an Evergreen teenager convicted of double murder presented their case for a new trial last week, citing new evidence from a previously unknown witness and pieces of the prosecution’s closing arguments as grounds for their motion.
Justine Winter, 18, appeared before District Court Judge Katherine Curtis on May 24 for a hearing in which her attorneys requested that the judge either grant a new trial or modify the outcome of the previous trial, whether that be by finding Winter guilty of a lesser charge or not guilty at all.
In February, a jury found Winter guilty of intentionally driving her car across the centerline of U.S. Highway 93 in March 2009, striking Erin Thompson’s car. Thompson, 35, and her son Caden Odell, 13, were killed in the crash.
Winter was convicted of two counts of deliberate homicide after a two-week trial.
Her attorneys, Max Battle and David Stufft, asserted that the prosecution’s key witness in the trial, Richard Poeppel, was not the first person on the scene of the crash, despite his trial testimony otherwise.
Battle called the defense’s new witness, Dan DeCoite, to the stand during the May 24 hearing. DeCoite, from Florence, said he was leaving dinner outside of Kalispell and ready to head south on Highway 93 when Winter’s car zipped past him.
He did not see the crash, but DeCoite said he rushed on to the scene and tried to help the injured victims in the cars. Emergency personnel replaced him, and DeCoite left the scene.
During the February trial, Poeppel testified that while traveling northbound on Highway 93 behind Thompson’s car, he saw Winter swerve across the centerline in her Pontiac and hit Thompson’s Subaru.
Poeppel also told the jury that he held Thompson when she died.
DeCoite said he was the first one to reach the Subaru, though he noticed another man at the scene, but he could not say whether it was Poeppel. He also said he did not contact law enforcement about his experience until the jury reached its verdict last February.
Stufft told Curtis that Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan was wrong to vouch for Poeppel’s testimony in light of DeCoite’s information.
However, Flathead County Deputy County Attorney Lori Adams contended that DeCoite’s testimony would not have changed the outcome of the trial, and therefore was not grounds for any changes.
“So you can give us nothing about how the accident happened because you didn’t see it?” Adams asked DeCoite.
“Yes ma’am,” he replied.
Winter’s defense team offered several other reasons for a new trial, including quoting pieces of Corrigan’s closing arguments from trial, particularly when he said Winter was a teenager who acted compulsively in the heat of the moment.
Stufft argued that Winter was unaware of the consequences of her actions and did not have the intent to kill anyone, so she should not be convicted of deliberate homicide.
However, Adams countered that the defense was taking Corrigan’s statements out of context, and when read as a whole they show that Corrigan was telling the jury that Winter drove her car into oncoming traffic knowing it was dangerous behavior.
The defense also contended that the prosecution changed its theory during trial and that Winter was denied her right to have the jury informed of the maximum sentence she faced.
Curtis said she would make a decision on the defense’s motion by the next week.
“I expect you all to continue your preparations for sentencing,” Curtis said. Winter’s sentencing is scheduled for June 6.
As the judge stood to leave, the defense informed Curtis that Winter’s father had been in the hospital when the jury read its verdict and he did not get the chance to hug his daughter.
Her attorney asked if Winter could hug her parents before she went back into the sheriff’s custody.
Curtis allowed it.
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