.

Jury Hangs in Case of Driver Accused of Killing Popular Softball Coach

The jury had voted 11-1 in favor of conviction of Jorene Ypanto Nicolas, charged with vehicle manslaughter.

Jorene Ypanto Nicolas booking photo.
Jorene Ypanto Nicolas booking photo.

Originally posted at 12:04 p.m. April 16, 2014. Edited with new details.

By PAUL ANDERSON

City News Service

A jury deadlocked today in the trial of a woman accused of being too distracted by her cellphone while driving to avoid a rear- end freeway crash in Westminster that killed the other motorist.

Jurors deadlocked 11-1 for guilt on a charge of grossly negligent vehicular manslaughter, prompting Orange County Superior Court Judge Steven Bromberg to declare a mistrial for Jorene Ypanto Nicolas.

Jurors deliberated for about 16 hours, beginning last Wednesday afternoon, before announcing they were unable to break their impasse.

Nicolas, 31, of San Diego, declared a conflict with defense attorney Eric Lampel and said she needs to be appointed a public defender because she's been without a driver's license since the crash, keeping her from being able to work.

Attorneys will return to court May 16 to discuss a date for a retrial.

Jurors told Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker that the holdout panelist refused to believe the testimony of Wes Vandiver, an Orange County district attorney's investigator who specializes in collision reconstruction.

"He literally accused Vandiver of perjury," one juror complained to Walker. The juror said the holdout claimed to be a physicist and brought in a magnifying glass to examine evidence, which Walker said would have been cause to kick him off the panel.

Another juror told reporters that the panel felt Nicolas was guilty because there was evidence she was texting and talking on her phone around the time of the April 27, 2011, collision. They doubted the testimony of another witness who said she felt the victim, 23-year-old Deanna Mauer, caused the crash.

Lampel complained that Bromberg did not allow jurors to hear that Mauer was on her phone -- speaking to her mother -- at the time of the crash.

Nicolas testified that the victim caused the crash.

"She veered into my lane, so I avoided her and I hit the center divide," Nicolas said after the mistrial was declared. "I tried to avoid her and her car spun out and hit the center divider."

Nicolas insisted she was saddened by the crash.

"My heart goes out to the family as well as her. It's a tragic accident," Nicolas said.

"Every day I pray for her. I feel so bad for her and her family as well. I can only imagine how the mother feels losing a daughter. I have a daughter and I would die if I lost my daughter."

Nicolas said she didn't understand why most of the jury believed she was guilty.

"I don't see why they would vote against me because a lot of the evidence was circumstantial," Nicolas said.

She argued Vandiver did not properly calculate the data from her car.

"He did all of his calculations according to just part of the data," Nicolas said.

Vandiver testified that according to data from an event data recorder -- commonly known as a black box -- on the defendant's car, Nicolas was going at least 84.7 mph before her Toyota Prius slammed into the victim's Hyundai sedan in gridlocked traffic on the San Diego (405) Freeway.

"A normal person under the same circumstances" would have slowed down when seeing traffic come to a halt, Walker said in her opening statement, noting that the crash happened about 10:55 a.m. on a "clear day" in the northbound lanes of the freeway near Edwards Street.

A witness, Jack Jeffries, told investigators that he noticed traffic had stopped and after hearing "screeching," followed by a "loud bang," felt one of the cars collide with his Porsche, Walker said.

"He saw the defendant using her phone" after the collision, Walker said.

Lampel characterized the collision as a "tragic auto accident ... that's all it is," and said "the evidence will show Ms. Nicolas was not inattentive."

His client was "going with the flow of traffic" before the collision, Lampel said.

"No one saw brake lights (activated on the victim's car) prior to the time (Mauer) swerved in front of the defendant," Lampel said.

Another witness, Erica Cruz, was driving her Range Rover north when she noticed the Hyundai swerving, in the way a California Highway Patrol officer might to create a break in traffic, Lampel said.

A juror said the other 10 panelists who voted for guilt thought Cruz was mistaken.

The attorney said Cruz was the only "independent" witness, who was not involved in the collision.

The victim's car was moving so "erratically" that it caught Cruz's attention and she slowed to get a better view of what was happening, Lampel said. Cruz saw Mauer swerve in front of the defendant's car before slamming into the center divider, Lampel said.

Lampel said Jeffries earlier offered investigators a similar account, but changed his statement after meeting with an expert for prosecutors.

Lampel said investigators never tested the victim's car for problems with the brake lights or any other defects. They also never recovered the car's black box.

Witness Paul McKinnon testified that he saw traffic halted and had no trouble slowing down to avoid a collision. When he "heard a loud crash," he checked his rear- and side-view mirrors and was concerned one of the vehicles would slam into his.

McKinnon added that traffic was so thick he was boxed in and could not get his car out of the way, but he escaped the collision anyway.

McKinnon said he got out of his car and tried to free the victim, but wasn't able to get her out of the wreckage until another man on the scene helped him.

Mauer was unconscious, and McKinnon testified that he held her neck to "stabilize" her while waiting for paramedics. He said the defendant did not check on the victim while McKinnon waited for first-responders to arrive.

Mauer, who had been wearing her seatbelt, was pronounced dead at UC Irvine Medical Center about seven hours after the crash. Nicolas sustained minor cuts in the crash.


Shripathi Kamath April 16, 2014 at 06:00 PM
Jury Hangs = Hung Jury?
Penny Arévalo April 16, 2014 at 07:48 PM
Attorneys will return to court May 16 to discuss a date for a retrial.

Boards

More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »