By PAUL ANDERSON
City News Service
A "completely inattentive" driver whose car slammed into the back of another sedan at 84 mph in gridlocked traffic on the 405 Freeway, killing the other motorist, should be convicted of vehicular manslaughter, a prosecutor told jurors today, but the defendant's attorney said the victim was at fault.
Jorene Ypanto Nicolas, 31, of San Diego, could face up to six years in prison if convicted of grossly negligent vehicular manslaughter in the April 27, 2011, crash that killed 23-year-old Deanna Mauer, an assistant softball coach at San Juan Hills High School.
"The evidence will show you beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant was completely inattentive" while behind the wheel of her 2006 Toyota Prius that day, Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker said.
"A normal person under the same circumstances" would have slowed down when seeing traffic come to a halt, Walker said.
The crash happened about 10:55 a.m. on a "clear day" in the northbound lanes of the freeway near Edwards Street in Westminster, Walker said.
Investigators retrieved a device, commonly known as a "black box," from the Prius that showed the car was going 84 mph at the moment of impact with the victim's Hyundai sedan, Walker said. The impact was so great it crunched the Hyundai like an "accordion," Walker said.
A witness, Jack Jeffries, is expected to testify 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, the prosecutor said.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Steven Bromberg told the attorneys not to mention any evidence about the defendant's phone records in their opening statements. It's not clear how much jurors will hear about the defendant's phone use during the trial or if investigators suspect that is what distracted her.
Defense attorney Eric 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.
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 will testify she saw Mauer swerve in front of the defendant's car before slamming into the center divider, Lampel said.
Lampel also 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 testified.
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.
After the collision, McKinnon said he got out of his car and tried to free the victim, but wasn't able to get her out until another man on the scene helped him.
Mauer was unconscious and "she looked like she was not OK," McKinnon testified. He said he held her neck to "stabilize" her while waiting for paramedics.
The defendant did not check on the victim while McKinnon waited for first-responders, the witness testified.
Nicolas sustained minor cuts in the crash while the victim, who had been wearing her seatbelt, was pronounced dead at UC Irvine Medical Center about seven hours after the crash.