An attorney for Shantel Lynn Witt, the Bend woman on trial in a fatal drugged-driving collision, admitted Wednesday that his client’s angry response that followed was “inexcusable.”
The comment by lawyer Bryan Donahue during closing arguments in Deschutes County Circuit Court was a response to witness testimony that Witt berated the surviving cyclists she encountered moments after striking Marika Stone, a local dentist and mother of two.
Witt is on trial for first-degree manslaughter in causing Stone’s death. Her fate now rests with Judge A. Michael Adler, who will announce his decision in the case Friday morning.
The case began 13 months ago, on a stretch of Dodds Road 4 miles east of U.S. Highway 97. The facts are familiar by now. It was a bright and crisp winter day — Dec. 30, 2017. There was a 2002 GMC Sierra, and a trio of cyclists heading toward it. The truck, driven by Witt, crossed the centerline traveling around a slight turn. Stone died instantly.
Several witnesses at her trial this month testified Witt got out of her truck and uttered a shocking response.
“F-----g cyclists are always in the road,” she was heard to say, standing feet from Stone’s mangled body.
Donahue said the comment, and other strange behaviors by Witt following the collision, were likely the result of shock.
“I don’t know how a person reacts to the news they just killed someone,” Donahue told the court Wednesday. “I don’t know.”
In his closing statement, Donahue tried to pick holes in the state’s case. He said Witt was only experiencing the psychotropic effects of two of the 11 substances detected in her urine.
“No one’s saying she wasn’t impaired,” Donahue said. “But she wasn’t impaired to the level the state alleges.”
Witt, 42, was arrested at the scene by an officer who reported observing numerous signs of impairment. She fell into her own vehicle. She couldn’t identify her left foot during a field sobriety test. She cycled through extreme moods — from somber and quiet to angry and resentful.
The Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office contends that “before, during and after” Witt collided with Stone, Witt displayed “extreme indifference” to human life. There’s a high bar in Oregon to convict for first-degree manslaughter and Witt’s six-day trial included much parsing of complex medical testimony about the additive versus collective effects of prescription medications, and the dissipation of chemical compounds in the human body.
Prosecutor Kari Hathorn gave the state’s closing argument.
“There is a mountain of evidence that Shantel Witt cared little about the value of human life,” she said.
Before the crash, Witt displayed extreme indifference by disregarding the warnings of medical professionals about her pill regimen, Hathorn said. She likewise failed to retain the lessons learned in a DUII victims impact panel, Hathorn said.
Witt was arrested for DUII in 2014 but successfully completed diversion treatment to keep the conviction off her record. Prosecutors pointed to the arrest as a sign Witt had “enhanced knowledge” of the effects of impaired driving, while her lawyers noted numerous times that the 2014 arrest was for an alcohol-related DUII, not prescription meds.
In the weeks before the fatal collision, Witt went to Mosaic Medical in Bend to refill several of her prescriptions. Three days before the collision, a doctor there warned Witt again of her pill regimen and began tapering her off one of the drugs.
A day later, Witt received a prescription for Xanax for her German shepherd, Lola. The prosecution alleges Witt did this to counteract the tapering.
Lola’s Xanax bottle — different in color and design from a pill bottle intended for human consumption — was collected by police only days before trial.
“They didn’t seize it at the time, not believing that someone would actually take their dog’s Xanax,” Hathorn told the courtroom.
The state also alleged the collective result of the pills Witt was under was greater than all of them added together. Hathorn asserted Witt was high on the “Holy Trinity” of prescription pill abuse — an opioid, a muscle relaxer (Soma) and a benzodiazepine (Xanax).
Hathorn said the public is fortunate to know what Witt was thinking in the moments after the crash, thanks to in-car audio recorded by the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office. Hathorn played samples during her closing, noting that Witt’s demeanor changes suddenly after her arresting officer shuts her door and walks off: from “crocodile tears” to enraged.
“This is f-----g bulls--t,” Witt is heard saying to herself.
Witt is charged with five criminal counts in addition to first-degree manslaughter. They include DUII and, for making Stone’s two fellow riders fear for the lives, two counts of reckless endangering. Witt is also charged with illegal possession of tramadol and illegal possession of hydrocodone.
Days before trial Witt pleaded guilty to the hydrocodone charge.
In Donahue and Shawn Kollie, Witt retained two of Bend’s top defense attorneys. They’ve pushed Adler to consider second-degree manslaughter instead of first-degree, and spent considerable time arguing against the Xanax charge.
In his closing, Donahue indicated quotation marks with his hands when he referred to the “Holy Trinity,” and called a study by one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, forensic toxicologist Barry Logan — which looked at DUII arrest reports — “frankly, a joke.”
Donahue and Kollie have pointed to Witt’s offer of a first-aid kit as a sign she attempted to render aid to Stone. The state countered that Witt’s first-aid kit — which was small and came standard with her Sierra — was woefully inadequate given the circumstances.
“Offering first aid to someone who was dead — whose skull had been shattered — was not a sign of compassion. It was a sign of impairment,” said prosecutor Andrew Steiner, who gave the state’s rebuttal to Donahue’s closing statement.
Steiner asked the judge to compare Witt’s actions before, during and after the crash to those of a “normal person.”
“At the scene it was the cyclists’ fault. In the courtroom it was the doctor’s fault. It’s anyone’s fault but her own,” Steiner said. “This isn’t a mystery or a whodunit. She was very impaired.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org