MAYVILLE — The attorney representing a Georgia woman on trial for the July 2021 wrong-way fatality said prosecutors were trying to insert a square peg into a round hole to make their case work.
Chautauqua County District Attorney Jason Schmidt hit back, saying the actions that led to the death of a Cattaraugus County man on Interstate 86 were “downright” on Heather Capell.
Ned Barone, a county public defender who represented Capell, and Schmidt presented their closing arguments Friday in Chautauqua County Court. The case was eventually handed over to the jury, which deliberated for about an hour and a half before breaking for the weekend.
Capell was driving east on the west lane of Interstate 86 on the morning of July 1, 2021, when she struck a vehicle driven by Bradley Wakefield in the town of North Harmony. Wakefield died as a result of the accident.
Jurors are considering three counts: second-degree manslaughter, second-degree manslaughter, and driving while impaired by a combination of drugs and alcohol. For the manslaughter count, the jury was advised of a less included charge of criminally negligent homicide.
The trial began on October 3 in County Court before Judge David Foley.
In his closing argument, which lasted nearly two hours, Barone hammered home the prosecution’s case. He said there was nothing presented at trial to indicate that Capell was impaired at the time of the crash.
Barone repeatedly noted a remark made by a Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Deputy, who called Capell a “hippie chick” to another officer at the accident site.
The public defender said that “persecution of ‘out-of-state hippie chick'” was part of a scenario that the government established at the start of its investigation and which was followed at trial.
Barone called the fatal accident a tragic accident. He reminded jurors that Capell was driving at night in an area she had never been to before.
Once on the freeway, he said Capell was driving at a reasonable speed in the right lane like on a two-lane road.
“His mistake was getting lost” said Baron. “Unfortunately, it was a tragedy. There was a loss of life. There is no denying that it was a terrible accident.
Barone did not call any witnesses in defense of Capell. However, on Friday he reviewed much of the prosecution case during his closing argument, reiterating the lack of evidence to suggest Capell was intoxicated.
Prosecutors alleged that Capell was impaired by marijuana and methamphetamine and was reckless when she drove more than 9 miles in the wrong direction, passing “Do not enter” and “One way” signs at the entrance to I-86 in Sherman.
A urine sample from Capell came back positive for marijuana and amphetamine/methamphetamine.
During his oral argument, Schmidt addressed the “hippie chick” comment, stating that it was made after Capell had already been taken to an ambulance and came when the deputy learned of the full extent of the fatal accident.
Schmidt said Capell, 33, was not persecuted as a “hippie chick,” rather she was being judged as an adult for her actions that morning.
The prosecutor said Capell “She may be a very good person, but she made terrible decisions. And, because of those decisions, we are here.
Schmidt discussed each charge and then reviewed the evidence presented at a trial. He alluded to the drugs found in her vehicle, her comments to police about drug use prior to the accident, and the fact that she drove several miles in the wrong direction despite several warning signs.
During part of his hour-long closing argument, Schmidt played security footage from a club in Buffalo.
Capell had driven from her home in Brunswick, Georgia, to meet another woman in Buffalo. The two were supposed to fly back to Georgia together, but after spending several hours at the club where the other woman worked, Capell decided to fly home herself.
It was at the club where the Georgian woman said she repeatedly smoked marijuana and licked a substance she said made her nervous. She also told police she feared being followed by men from the club.
After closing arguments, Foley instructed the jury and detailed each charge.
The jury twice sent notes to Foley; the first was to see evidence – a copy of Capell’s medical records and a county map that highlights the crash scene. The second note was to have the charges explained again.
Deliberations are due to resume Monday morning.