Defense witness questions details of crash

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Defense attorneys for 17-year-old Justine Winter went to work Monday trying to discredit the prosecution’s position about how a 2009 fatal crash occurred on U.S. 93 north of Kalispell.

Attorneys spent most of the afternoon questioning a Libby man hired by the defense to reconstruct the crash last year.

Scott Curry identified himself as a forensics engineer who specializes in accident reconstruction and has been involved with around 300 accidents as an investigator with his private practice in Libby and previously as an engineer with the Forest Service.

Winter’s defense intends to demonstrate that the March 19, 2009, crash happened in the southbound lane, making it unlikely that Winter crossed the centerline.

The prosecution maintains that Winter intended to kill herself and knowingly crossed the centerline, crashing her Pontiac Grand Am head-on into a northbound Subaru driven by Erin Thompson, 35, of Columbia Falls. Thompson, who was pregnant, died in the nighttime crash along with her 13-year-old son, Caden Odell.

Winter’s trial on two counts of deliberate homicide entered its second week on Monday.

With defense attorney Max Battle asking him questions, Curry described for jurors how he carried out his investigation using Montana Department of Transportation and Highway Patrol reports, photos and witness statements, and conducting a “maximum engagement study” in a county storage yard on May 27, 2010.

That study involved suspending the two wrecked cars on concrete blocks over a plywood platform. He used a lift that has more mobility than a standard forklift to shift and adjust the vehicles in a fashion that would line up “contact damage” that resulted from initial contact between the vehicles.

As an example, he cited finding an exact piece of metal on one vehicle that punctured the front tire of the other vehicle.

Curry said after lining up the vehicles, he used a brass plumb bob to plot coordinates on the plywood to establish a line, or angle, of initial contact.

The defense also attempted to discredit prosecution evidence about an orange impression called a “slap mark” found near the 85 mph line on the speedometer of the Pontiac. The state maintains that the force of the collision caused the mark.

But Curry said it was not possible for the mark to be made by the needle because it was beyond the reach of the needle’s end. Battle seemed to suggest that the speedometer may have been tampered with, asking several questions about possible fingerprints that were apparent in evidentiary photographs.

Battle showed jurors dozens of photos of the two vehicles that were taken on May 27.

He asked Curry about an initial visit to the storage yard on May 3 and whether he saw the slap mark on the speedometer that day. Curry said he did not.

“Did you take a photo” of the speedometer that day? Battle asked.

“I did not,” Curry responded.

Earlier in the day, Battle questioned a private investigator, Rick Hawk, who was with Curry on May 3, asking him if he saw the slap mark that day and if he saw fingerprints on the speedometer on May 27.

Hawk testified that he specifically was looking for a slap mark, among other things, and he did not see one. On the later visit, he said he saw smudges on the speedometer.

During cross-examination, prosecutor Lori Adams asked if he took photos of the speedometer on May 3, and Hawk said he did not.

Battle also questioned a witness, Eugene Welch, who reported a couple days after the accident that he had passed a green Pontiac while southbound on U.S. 93 between Whitefish and Kalispell.

“Before I passed her, the vehicle was all over the road ... it was just driving erratically,” Welch said.

But Battle reminded him of his earlier deposition testimony in which he stated that the Pontiac did not cross the centerline but had drifted over the line on the right side of the road. Welch then said he did not see the Pontiac cross the centerline.

Battle also asked him about his speed — about 65 mph — and location after passing the Pontiac. Welch said he checked his rearview mirror after passing and did not see any headlights after a while.

The jury trial resumes today in Flathead District Court.

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by e-mail at jmann@dailyinterlake.com.

 

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