Defense: Nestande Didn’t Know She Hit Someone With Car

Former legislative aide Gabrielle Nestande didn’t realize she had hit a person with her car until hours later, when police questioned her about a fatal hit-and-run wreck in West Austin, one of her defense attorneys said Tuesday.

In opening statements on her trial’s first day, Perry Minton described the daughter of Californian politician Bruce Nestande as a frightened 23-year-old worried about the reasons she would give her father for the damage to her BMW. He said she first thought someone had thrown a rock at her windshield and later figured it could have been a deer.

“This case is a heartbreaker,” Minton told jurors. There is no person on either side, he said, “that does not recognize this case is full of sadness.”

But prosecutors said Nestande changed her story and was fully aware she had struck and killed Courtney Griffin with her car in the early hours of May 27, 2011. “I think it was very clear why she left that night,” Assistant District Attorney Mary Farrington said in opening statements. “She left because she was intoxicated, and she did not want to get caught.”

Nestande, now 25, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to all three charges against her: manslaughter and intoxication manslaughter, second-degree felonies each punishable by up to 20 years in prison; and failure to stop and render aid, a third-degree felony with a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

Authorities have said Griffin, 30, was last seen walking home about 12:30 a.m. after going out to eat with a friend. She was found dead shortly after 5 a.m. in the 1600 block of Exposition Boulevard. An anonymous 911 caller hours later reported seeing a black BMW 3 Series sedan with a broken windshield parked in a driveway in the 3100 block of Windsor Road, a half-mile from where Griffin’s body was found.

The car was traced to Nestande, who is free on bail, was arrested after police questioned her at the Capitol office where she worked for state Rep. Wayne Christian.

On Tuesday, Griffin’s loved ones in the crowded courtroom wiped away tears as Farrington opened by describing the victim as an endearing nanny and veterinarian technician. The night of her death, she offered to pick up a friend who had been drinking at a restaurant, Farrington said.

Kelly Bailey, who knew Griffin since high school, testified that a friend dropped Griffin off near the restaurant, and Griffin drove her home in Bailey’s car. Griffin then walked home and was struck by a car a few blocks away.

Paul Hathaway, a contractor who now lives in New Hampshire, testified that he discovered her body early the next day, when he was taking out the garbage at his home. Austin firefighters and police officers who responded said they found Griffin lying on her stomach in an awkward position.

Some members of the audience wiped away tears and others left the courtroom as jurors were shown photographs of Griffin’s body.

Austin police officer Juanita Vasquez, who photographed the scene, said she also later took photos of the black BMW. One of its damaged headlights seemed to match plastic fragments that she photographed at the scene of the wreck, Vasquez testified.

There were quiet gasps in the audience as prosecutors showed jurors a photo of the BMW’s broken windshield. Vasquez said that it was caved in and that she collected hair, clothing fibers and skin tissue from the spiderweb cracks.

Among the details under the greatest debate, prosecutors and defense attorneys told jurors Tuesday, will be whether Nestande was intoxicated the night of the incident, whether she knew she hit a person and whether the road she had been driving was dark.

Minton told jurors that Nestande was hesitant to drink while out celebrating with friends after earning a new job. The attorney pointed to a photo of a dark Tarrytown road where he said the wreck occurred. His client had crested a hill and looked down at her phone to see if her alarm was set for the following day when her windshield imploded, Minton said.

“She was in a panic and thought someone threw a rock at her car,” he said. “She sat there struggling to maintain her composure.”

Minton said Nestande checked her rear-view mirror and looked to her sides and didn’t see what she expected to see — debris or “kids pulling a prank.”

“Gabrielle was exhausted because of her work schedule, and there is no denying that she had had some drinks,” Minton said. But the attorney said she hadn’t been intoxicated.

But prosecutors said they requested bar receipts from the places Nestande visited that night before Griffin’s death and interviewed people who were with her, which showed she and her friends had multiple rounds to drink that night — and not just beer.

“As you can imagine … none of her friends could remember if she was intoxicated,” Farrington told jurors, because they were intoxicated themselves, had been talking to other people or actively trying to protect her. Prosecutors weren’t able to identify three additional witnesses who had seen her intoxicated that night until more than a year later, she said.

Court proceedings began with a hearing on a motion to suppress evidence. Defense attorney Sam Bassett said Nestande was interviewed without an attorney and was arrested without a warrant. State District Judge Karen Sage ordered attorneys to hold off on certain evidence until she makes an official ruling later in the trial, which resumes Wednesday.

Renowned legal expert with significant experience in Civil Law, Criminal Defense, and Family Law. Graduate of The University of Texas School of Law, and admitted to the bar in Texas and U.S. District Court Western District of Texas. Active member of esteemed legal associations including the Texas Bar Association and the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Association.