In Texas, a high-profile trial for vehicular manslaughter has political overtones
It's rare that a jury trial for vehicular manslaughter captivates the public's attention in central Texas. But Gabrielle Nestande, a former legislative aid for a Republican lawmaker, has been no ordinary defendant in a captivating six-day trial that, on late Tuesday, went to the jury. Nestande stands accused of a fatal a hit-and-run following a night of drinking in Austin, the capital. On the day before her arrest at the Texas House, the Baylor University graduate had, ironically, been honored by lawmakers for her exemplary work as a legislative aide. She got her start in government as an intern on Gov. Rick Perry's presidential campaign.
Now, the 25-year-old faces up to 50 years in prison if convicted for manslaughter, intoxication manslaughter, and failure to stop and render aid -- all for allegedly killing 30-year-old Courtney Griffin, a well-liked fifth-generation Austinite. Griffin was a nanny, animal lover, and veterinarian's assistant. She was killed almost instantly in the early morning darkness on Friday, May 27, 2011, when Nestande ran over her from behind as she walked home, apparently along a bike lane. Her body was found on a driveway early the next morning.
Nestande's trial and the jury deliberations have been generating front-page headlines and leading the line-up of local news channels. It's not that fatal hit-and-runs are unusual in Austin. On the contrary, they are sickeningly common. It's widely presumed that many hit-and-runs in the area are fueled by Austin's status as a sanctuary city - home to many immigrants from Mexico and Central America who, according to police statistics, have a predilection for drinking and driving.
Like the trial in Austin of former of former Republican House Speaker Tom DeLay, Nestande's trial has stirred up a certain blood lust among more than a few Democratic trial watchers. To them, Nestande was guilty because she was a Republican from a wealth and politically connected family; a spoiled rich girl, as they saw things, who callously left Courtney Griffin for dead after hitting her with her daddy's BMW.
Well aware of the political overtones of her trial, one of Nestande's lawyers, during a full day of jury selection on Monday last week, asked perospective jurors if they thought a defendant with political clout and money would get preferential treatment in the criminal-justice system.
It was a logical question. After all, soon after Nestande was arrested, news reports and social media were buzzing with details of her background: Her father is Bruce Nestande, a lawyer and Republican heavyweight. He was Republican California State Assemblyman; Orange County Supervisor; special assistant to Governor Ronald Reagan from 1971-1972; and Executive Director of the California Republican Party from 1972-1973. He and his wife have been attending the trial.
As some in Austin have gleefully pointed out, Bruce Nestande also has had legal problems, having in 2006 been sentenced to six months in jail and three years' probation. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor driving under the influence and hit-and-run, as well as filing a fraudulent insurance claim, a felony.
John Bridges, managing editor of the Austin American-Statesman, defended the paper against one reader's charge that editors were hyping the Nestande story over other hit-and-run cases because Nestande's father was a prominent Republican. "I note that the only place the word 'Republican' has appeared this week is here in the comments field and not in our news coverage. Regardless, part of our job is to report on high-profile cases at the courthouse, and this one certainly qualifies," Bridges wrote.
On Tuesday, a sobbing and distraught Nestande took the stand and admitted she'd been drinking with friends. But she denied she was drunk, saying the accident happened when she glanced down to check her cell phone's alarm "and my windshield shattered." She said she stopped for a moment, looked in her rear-view mirror, but didn't see anything. In earlier testimony, it emerged that she had told friends that she though she'd hit a deer or that something had been thrown at her windshield. She was scared and drove away, she said. Whether these comments were truthful will be for the jury to consider. Somehow, she failed to notice bits of clothing and flesh on her car's smashed windshield.
"Whose fault is it that we are here?" her defense attorney asked.
"It's mine," she sobbed.
Prosecutors, for their part, asked the jury to make an example of Nestande. "Your verdict is going to set the standard for what is OK and what is not OK in this town," said one prosecutor in Tuesday's closing arguments. "We have a culture in this town where there is a lot of drinking and there are a lot of persons who like to work hard and play hard."
Interestingly, police investigators received many of their leads from Nestande's own friends, who either felt obligated to come forward or cooperated when police contacted them to put together their case. Such civic engagement values, it's worth noting, are virtually non-existent in countries and cultures where one's first allegiance is to tribe, family, and friends.
Consider, along these lines, a high-profile hit-and-run in Austin in 2008 that claimed the life of a motorcyclist named Eric M. Laufer, 25, an up-and-coming composer and musician. Police identified the driver as an illegal Mexican immigrant, a dishwasher named Jose Luis Dorantes. Unfortunately, police got little help from Dorantes' friends, also illegal immigrants, who shared an apartment where one of the tenants owned the SUV Dorantes was driving. "Nobody could tell us what he was doing that night or why he had the vehicle," according to Detective Chad Francois, a vehicular homicide investigator, who was interviewed for an American Thinker article: "Hit-and-Run: Death in a Sanctuary City." He added: "They cooperated just enough to stay out of trouble." Dorantes was never brought to justice.
It's hardly a surprise that some in Austin have vilified Gabrielle Nestande and her Republican friends and acquaintances. Yet the case the police built against Nestande, with the help of her friends and acquaintances, suggests that two of America's greatest strengths -- its civic culture and rule of law -- are alive and well in some segments of society in Austin, Texas.
For a video clip of Gabrielle Nestande's testimony on Tuesday, click here.