Jury selection is now complete and the stage is set for the hit-and-run trial for former Capitol staffer, Gabrielle Nestande.
A pool of 85 potential jurors was narrowed down to 12, consisting of three women and nine men, with one alternate, to determine if the 25-year-old California native is guilty of fatally striking 30-year-old Courtney Griffin with her black BMW in the early morning hours of May 27, 2011. Griffin, a fifth-generation Austinite, was walking to her home on Exposition Boulevard at the time.
Prosecutors say instead of stopping her vehicle, Nestande fled to a friend’s house nearby. She was taken into custody the following morning when she went to work on the House floor at the State Capitol. A homeowner discovered Griffin’s body in her driveway shortly after 5 a.m.
Both Assistant District Attorney Allison Wetzel and Defense Attorney Sam Bassett addressed the pool with a slew of questioning that lasted until late evening.
Wetzel touched on Nestande’s youth and appearance during her morning questioning. She provided an example that Nestande may remind them of “their daughter’s best friend,” and asked the potential panelists if they feel sympathy for the suspect. Several people raised their hand.
Periodically during Monday morning’s proceedings, Nestande cried silently next to her defense team.
A few potential jurors expressed to the court they were uncomfortable with being in the position to place judgment on such serious charges. At one point Wetzel answered, “Nothing about this trial is going to be comfortable.”
Several potential jurors also said they had family members who were victims of similar crimes, which could impact their decision.
Wetzel wrapped up by reading the names of witnesses in the case, to avoid any conflict of interest with the jurors. The list included Austin firefighters, police, EMS responders and Gabrielle’s sister, Francesca Nestande.
Bassett then took his turn, first calling attention to Nestande’s parents, Pam and Bruce Nestande, who were sitting in the back of the court. Bruce Nestande, a former California Assemblyman out of Orange County, pleaded guilty in 2007 on misdemeanor driving under the influence charge and a hit-and-run charge in relation to a drunk driving accident in 2006, according to the Los Angeles Times.
During his questioning, Bassett asked a string of questions regarding people with wealth and resources. He asked the pool if they believed people who had more money and clout were treated differently in the criminal justice system. Some jurors agreed, one even citing the controversial 'not guilty' sentence O.J. Simpson received in the 1990s. Both Nestande’s father and half brother have had careers in California politics.
Bassett also dipped into the publicity of the case. The vast majority of the pool had heard of the incident, mainly through local media reports. However, several potential jurors had first-hand knowledge of the case--one worked at the Capitol the time of the accident, another knew a friend of Griffin’s and another had passed by the police activity in the Tarrytown neighborhood the morning of May 27.
The defense also explored traffic laws pertaining to pedestrians and bicyclists. He prompted the pool to list basic safety precautions for walking on the road, like facing oncoming traffic and using a flashlight at night.
He asked the pool on if the burden of responsibility laid primarily on the driver or pedestrians and cyclists when sharing the road, at one point even asking if anyone had a “Be kind to cyclists” sticker on their vehicle.
The pool had a mix of professionals, including an emergency room nurse, a lawyer, an engineer and a construction manager.
The trial, which begins Tuesday at 9 a.m., is expected to last approximately two weeks, according to Judge Karen Sage.
If found guilty, Nestande faces two to 20 years in prison on both the manslaughter and intoxication manslaughter charges, and up to 10 years for the failure to stop and render aid charge.