Crash investigation to delay murder case
April 4, 2009
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE ” An investigation by California Highway Patrol experts will likely determine what charges prosecutors pursue in the case of a Placerville woman accused of murdering an ex-boyfriend by hitting him with her car in August.
At a hearing in South Lake Tahoe on Friday, El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Suzanne Kingsbury gave Deputy District Attorney Gloria Mas 90 days to get the CHP Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team to scrutinize the collision that killed 23-year-old Anthony Payne.
Melissa Nichols, 24, is accused of intentionally driving her silver Pontiac Grand Am into Payne as he road his motorcycle on Carson Road in Camino on Aug. 15.
Nichols is charged with second-degree murder, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, DUI causing injury, and driving with a blood alcohol content above .08 percent in connection with the incident.
Mas requested time for the specialized accident investigation team to look at the crash as a way to dispute defense investigators’ findings regarding the collision.
The prosecutor initially indicated that it could take as long as six months for the team to complete an investigation, but defense attorney David Cramer protested, arguing the team’s investigators should have been brought in at the start of the case.
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Six months is too long to wait in a case that has already taken longer than necessary, Cramer said.
“I don’t think we should wait that long,” Cramer said.
In a motion filed by the defense attorney on Feb. 23, Cramer challenges testimony given by El Dorado County Sheriff’s Sgt. Matt Underhill during a Jan. 14 preliminary hearing in Placerville.
The motion contends that Underhill is not an expert in accident reconstruction, and his testimony should be stricken from the record.
“At best the evidence presented would show there is sufficient evidence to go to trial on vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated without gross negligence,” Cramer contends in the motion.
Vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence while intoxicated carries a maximum penalty of four years in state prison, far less than the life sentence possible from a second-degree murder conviction under California law.
If the CHP team makes findings similar to the defense expert’s conclusions, the case could also end up being reduced to a misdemeanor, Kingsbury said Friday.
But such a finding is not a foregone conclusion, Kingsbury added.
“If this is a murder case, it needs to proceed as a murder case,” Kingsbury said.
At the request of prosecutors, Nichols was released on her own recognizance on March 3 and appeared in court on Friday wearing black pants and a black hooded sweatshirt.
Nichols is prohibited from drinking alcohol as a condition of the release.
Following arguments surrounding the CHP team investigation on Friday, Kingsbury denied a request by Mas to have Nichols fitted with a device to monitor her blood alcohol content.
Mas had requested the device because it’s expected to be several months before the case goes to trail.
Cramer objected to Mas’ request, noting Nichols has no previous criminal history, doesn’t have a drivers license and is already subject to random alcohol testing.
As a compromise, Kingsbury ordered Nichols to submit to random alcohol testing no less than two times a week.