A woman drove drunk and committed vehicular manslaughter when she ran over a 5-year-old girl who died in front of her mother and sister, who were hospitalized with brain injuries, a defense attorney and prosecutor both told jurors today.
The main argument in the trial of Jessicah Louise Cowan, 37, of Lake Hughes will be whether her erratic driving, which included running two red lights and driving with a blood-alcohol level at least three times the legal limit, amounts to second-degree murder.
Cowan had a blood-alcohol level of .24 and had two mini bottles of vodka, marijuana and a pipe in her Lexus when she ran over Osmara Meza and injured her 6-year-old sister Gresia and their mother Eloisa in Santa Ana at 10:59 a.m. on June 23, 2012, according to Senior Deputy District Attorney Mark Birney.
Cowan left the crash scene at Spurgeon and 17th streets and kept driving until a witness caught up to her and blocked her way forward, Birney said.
Osmara was pronounced dead at the scene and her mother and sister sustained significant brain injuries, Birney said.
Eloisa Meza and her two daughters were walking to an area restaurant that Saturday morning to get pancakes, Birney said.
The defendant “decided to drink. It was not an accident. There were choices made, things that were done,” Birney said.
Cowan sped through a red light on 17th Street about 70 mph and kept going toward Spurgeon, where she blew another red light, Birney said.
As police questioned her, she claimed she wasn’t trying to run from the crash and that she hadn’t been drinking, Birney said.
“All of these things will be proven false, lies,” the prosecutor said.
“She knows the risk she took to her life” when she decided to drink and drive, Birney said. “She knows the risk to other lives.”
Credit card receipts in her purse showed the defendant stopped at a liquor store and bought the two small bottles of vodka after she arrived at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank and picked up her car, Birney said.
She stopped at another liquor store in Arcadia after that and spent a nearly identical amount, but there are no records of what she bought there, according to Birney.
He said records show she bought two drinks on the flight, as well.
When an investigator asked her, “What can happen when you drive while under the influence of alcohol?”, Cowan replied, “What happened today,” according to Birney.
“She took risks. She gambled and that little girl lost,” he said.
Birney said he was “not going to argue that Ms. Cowan wanted this to happen,” but he told jurors that her “reckless disregard” and “implied malice” make her guilty of second-degree murder.
Cowan’s attorney, Dennis O’Connell, urged jurors not to let their emotions get the best of them and to judge the case on its facts.
“That supernova of emotion will make it very difficult for you,” O’Connell said, referring to the death of a young girl.
He said Cowan was trying to drive to Temecula that day.
“You’re going to see the route she’s taking makes no sense,” O’Connell said. “She’s driving under the influence. When she does that, she’s thinking the same way all these other people think when they do that. The last thing on her mind is she’s going to kill someone.”
Cowan has no criminal record and has never undergone the type of coaching about the dangers of drinking and driving that drunken drivers must do when they are convicted, O’Connell said.
Prosecutors often charge drunken drivers with second-degree murder if the defendant has had a prior DUI conviction because they are warned if they drive intoxicated again and someone dies, they could be charged with murder. But an implied-malice argument may be made if there are other conditions of reckless driving in place, such as excessive speeding, driving through red lights or traveling too fast for the weather conditions.
O’Connell also argued that his client wasn’t aware she hit anyone because she had gotten a phone call right before the collision and was distracted.
“Even though she’s severely impaired, she looks down at her phone and blows the light,” O’Connell said.
Cowan was driving so fast it took her 600 feet to stop, O’Connell said. He said his client was not trying to get away from the crime scene, was too drunk to understand what happened, and was not aware anyone had been struck or had died when the first officers arrived on scene.
An expert is expected to testify that someone who is drunk can be easily coached into giving specific answers to leading questions during questioning, O’Connell said.
“I’m going to ask you to convict my client of vehicular manslaughter because that’s what she did,” O’Connell said. “I’m going to ask you to acquit her of murder.”