Teenager’s trial headed to jury

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A jury is expected to begin deliberating today in the case of a 17-year-old Evergreen girl charged with two counts of deliberate homicide for a 2009 car crash that killed a pregnant Columbia Falls woman and her teenage son.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys for Justine Winter called their final witnesses Wednesday in Flathead District Court, bringing what has already been an eight-day trial close to an end.

District Judge Katherine Curtis met with attorneys Wednesday afternoon and is expected to provide the 12-member jury with instructions this morning.

Prosecutors and Winter’s attorneys will issue their closing arguments today before the jury convenes at the Flathead County Justice Center.

Curtis told the jury to expect to remain at the courthouse after the normal 5 p.m. halt of proceedings.

Prosecutors spent Wednesday calling rebuttal witnesses to refute the testimony of defense experts who claim Winter was not suicidal and that the fatal crash did not occur in her lane.

Winter is accused of intentionally crossing the center of U.S. 93 between Kalispell and Whitefish on March 19, 2009, and colliding with a Subaru Forester driven by 35-year-old Erin Thompson in an alleged suicide attempt. The crash killed Thompson and her 13-year-old son Caden Odell. Thompson also was pregnant.

A text-message conversation between Winter and her former boyfriend Ryan Langford held in the 30 minutes before the crash has been cited as the prosecution’s strongest evidence that the collision was intentional.

Winter threatened suicide and wrote that she would crash her car less than 15 minutes before the 8:30 p.m. crash, according to a transcript of the conversation.

Crash reconstruction expert James Pittman, a Baton Rouge Police Department officer retained by prosecutors, on Wednesday provided testimony similar to that of Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Dustin LeRette and fellow crash reconstructionist Barb Watson.

Pittman said the crash almost certainly occurred when Winter’s southbound Pontiac Grand Am crossed the center of Stillwater Bridge and collided with Thompson’s vehicle a high speed.

LeRette and Watson testified Winter’s vehicle was traveling at up to 85 miles per hour when it collided with Thompson’s Subaru.

Pittman was asked by County Attorney Ed Corrigan to evaluate the conclusion of defense expert Scott Curry, who testified Tuesday that his reconstruction of the crash showed the collision occurred in Winter’s lane.

Corrigan asked what evidence supports Curry’s theory.

“Absolutely nothing,” Pittman said.

Using a laser pointer, he noted that the southbound lane was void of any evidence that a crash had occurred in a photo taken the morning after the crash. The northbound lane, however, was marked with fluid stains, gouges and tire marks, he said.

Pittman also said Curry’s reconstruction would make the final resting place of the Subaru — high centered on the bridge railing — improbable.

“It would have been in the air for 37 feet,” he said, adding later: “It’s not possible.”

Prosecutors also sought to weaken the testimony of forensic linguist Robert Leonard, who testified Tuesday that Winter’s text messages did not constitute a suicide note or a credible threat.

Lorna Fadden, a forensic linguist retained by the prosecution, agreed with Leonard that the texts were not a suicide note but concluded that they did represent a credible threat that she would harm herself.

“She made it quite clear in the test messages that she had intended to crash,” Fadden said. “She said so repeatedly.”

Fadden said for a threat to be credible, it must be uttered, the person must have reasonable ability to carry it out and the means to execute the threat must be available.

“I think it was a credible threat,” she said.

Paul Moomaw, a clinical psychologist based in Missoula, testified on adolescent suicide and his review of Winter’s case. His conclusion differed from a defense psychologist who said Winter was not suicidal.

He said her parents were “physically and emotionally” absent from her life, a fact that when combined with her tumultuous relationship with Langford would create a stressful situation.

“She felt like she had to carry it all on her own shoulders,” he said.

Moomaw said he couldn’t determine if she was suicidal on March 19, 2009.

“There is absolutely no way anyone can do that,” he said.

Winter, who is being charged as an adult, could face a sentence of up to 200 years or life in prison if she is convicted.

Reporter Eric Schwartz may be reached at 758-4441 or by e-mail at eschwartz@dailyinterlake.com.

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