Thursday, April 24, 2014
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has upheld a trial court judge’s ruling that hospital bed statements made by a teenage driver accused of the deaths of two of her friends in a 2012 West Paris crash would not be admissable at trial.
The panel of the state’s seven highest judges ruled unanimously Thursday to reject an appeal by the Oxford County District Attorney’s Office, which sought to reinstate statements made by Kristina Lowe, who was 18 years old at the time of the Jan. 6, 2012, crash that killed Rebecca Mason, 16, of West Paris and Logan Dam, 19, of Norway and injured another passenger, Jacob Skiff of Paris.
Lowe told police while she was hospitalized at Maine Medical Center in Portland that she had been texting at the time of the crash, admitted to drinking and at one point denied that she had been driving the car. Superior Court Justice Robert Clifford had excluded some of her statments, but not all, because a Maine State Police trooper failed to inform Lowe as required by law that she did not have to talk and was entitled to an attorney.
“Eighteen-year-old Kristina Lowe lay in the hospital, sedated, frostbitten, immobilized and severely injured when a Maine State Police trooper, without providing Miranda warnings, questioned her about the car accident that caused Lowe’s injuries,” Chief Justice Leigh Saufley said in the high court’s 12-page ruling.
Lowe’s attorney, James Howaniec, said during oral arguments before the supreme court last month that, although the case against his client, who is now 20, was known as a teen texting case, there was no evidence that she was texting at the time of the crash.
Howaniec also said last month that Lowe’s blood-alcohol level taken after the crash was 0.04 percent, within the legal limit for an adult, although Lowe is still younger than the legal age to consume alcohol.
A prosecutor argued before the panel that the state trooper had told Lowe in the hospital that she was free to stop talking at any time, meaning that Lowe’s statements were voluntary. But the panel of judges disagreed in its ruling.
“A reasonable person in Lowe’s position would not have felt at liberty to end the interrogation,” Saufley said in the decision.
Oxford County Assistant District Attorney Joseph O’Connor said after receiving Thursday’s decision that any appeal is “always uphill,” but that his office had wanted “a second opinion” on whether Lowe’s statements should have been excluded.
“This doesn’t conclude the case by any means,” O’Connor said. “We will be reviewing the case as a result of this ruling.”
Howaniec said Lowe’s case has been in “limbo” for a year while the prosecution’s appeal was pending and that he is now hoping to sit down with the District Attorney’s Office within the next week or so.
“Hopefully, we will be able to reach some sort of plea bargain that will be acceptable to my client and myself,” Howaniec said. “We think this (ruling) essentially eliminates evidence that, based on my review of police reports, is the main thrust of the state’s case.”
Without Lowe’s statements that she was texting and drunk, he argued, a court can’t find her guilty of manslaughter. He said she was speeding, going 70 mph in a 50 mph zone, but that doesn’t reach the level of manslaughter.
Phone records show that, contrary to what Lowe told police in the hospital, she was not texting at the time of the crash, he said.
Lowe, who remains free while the case is pending, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of manslaughter, two counts of aggravated criminal operating under the influence and one count of leaving the scene of an accident. Her trial had been postponed pending the ruling.
Scott Dolan can be reached at 791-6304 or at: