During opening statements in the hit-and-run trial of Gabrielle Nestande, prosecutors described 30-year-old Courtney Griffin as a caring nanny and an adoring animal lover. Nestande, a former Capitol staffer, is accused of striking Griffin with her vehicle and killing her, then fleeing the scene in spring 2011.
Nestande, 25, pleaded not guilty to manslaughter, intoxication manslaughter and failure to stop and render aid at the start of the trial Tuesday.
Audience members and Nestande herself shed tears as prosecutors described the night of the accident. Assistant District Attorney Mary Farrington said Nestande was intoxicated when she struck Griffin with her car in the early morning hours of May 27, 2011.
Prosecutors say instead of stopping her vehicle, Nestande fled to her boyfriend’s apartment nearby. A homeowner discovered Griffin’s body in his driveway when he went to take out the trash shortly before 5 a.m.
Griffin, a fifth generation Austinite, had just helped a friend who had a few drinks get home. She was walking back to her own apartment as Nestande was returning home after a night of drinking and partying with her boyfriend and others on Rainey Street, according to Farrington.
Friends of Nestande's who were with her the night of the accident originally told investigators she was not intoxicated. Farrington says the friends, especially her boyfriend, William Marchbanks, who wanted to marry her, were trying to protect Nestande. Farrington also said some of the friends couldn’t remember if Nestande was drunk because they were intoxicated themselves.
Several witnesses came forward months later with information that Nestande was in fact drunk the night of the incident. Police originally said alcohol was not a factor in the crash.
Farrington says Nestande changed her story about what happened, first telling friends she thought a rock hit her windshield, but later saying she hit a deer.
When defense attorney Perry Minton approached the jury, he said they were about to hear a “very different story.” Minton described Nestande as a hard working, ambitious young woman who graduated from Baylor University with a communications degree and followed friends to Austin. She always wanted to work at the Capitol, Minton said, and started out as an intern for Rick Perry's gubernatorial campaign.
Minton said Nestande's boyfriend and other friends urged her to go out on the night of May 26, but Nestande was hesitant because of a heavy workload during sine die, or the end of the legislative session. She did end up going to Clive Bar on Rainey Street.
Her boyfriend, Marchbanks, still wanted Nestande to continue partying, but she declined again, eventually getting into her vehicle parked at his place to head home, “a decision that would have an impact,” Minton said.
Minton said Nestande was driving on Exposition Boulevard in the Tarrytown neighborhood when she looked down to her cup holder at her phone and “in an instant” had struck Griffin. She was terrified, Minton said, and returned to Marchbank's home.
She told Marchbanks a rock had hit her windshield, and he went outside to inspect the car. He returned and Nestande fell asleep shortly after.
Nestande sent pictures to her friends of her windshield later that day, which Minton says is indicative that she was never trying to hide anything about the crash. He argued that once Nestande saw the damage to her car in the daylight, she determined she hit a deer, which is why her story changed.
As for why she didn’t call 911 immediately, Minton said Nestande would answer that question herself when she takes the stand.
“This girl’s death is serious business,” Minton said. “But what happens to Gabrielle Nestande is also serious.”
The first witness called to the stand was Austin attorney Kellie Bailey, who Griffin had escorted home before the accident. Bailey met Griffin when she was still in high school, at a day care where Griffin worked. Griffin became a nanny for Bailey’s children for several years and also formed a friendship with her family. After her kids grew older, Griffin began doing personal assistant work for Bailey.
About an hour after returning with Bailey to her home, Griffin left to walk to her apartment, less than a mile away. Bailey offered Griffin her vehicle, but Griffin declined, saying she “needed to get used to walking.” Then she left Bailey’s house saying, “Love you, bye.”
Several hours later, Bailey heard about a pedestrian death on Exposition Boulevard and said she instantly knew it was Griffin.
The defense asked Bailey about the neighborhood, mainly how dark the street became at night and if walking in the bicycle lane, where Griffin was struck, was indeed safe.
“It’s a walking neighborhood,” she said of Tarrytown.
Bailey insisted that pedestrians, cyclists and even people with strollers walked in the bicycle lane in the area.
“Is that a good idea?" Minton asked about walking with a stroller in a bicycle lane. "Maybe, maybe not," Bailey answered.
After Bailey’s testimony, the remainder of the day was was devoted to witnesses who were first on the scene once Griffin's body was discovered. Paul Hathaway, a contractor, lived in the home connected to the driveway where Griffin was found, and noticed her when he was taking out the trash.
Hathaway said Griffin showed no signs of life, and was lying sideways on his driveway. He said there was branches tangled under her body, and her shoes were missing. Griffin had a trail of blood coming from her head, down the driveway into the street. At the time he found her, that blood was already beginning to dry.
Griffin’s wallet, cell phone charger and shoes were found in and around a bush that was disturbed during the wreck.
Hathaway was questioned heavily by defense attorneys, who asked about how dark his driveway becomes at night. Hathaway agreed it did get dark, but that the porch light was lit the night of the accident. Despite some tense exchanges with Minton, Hathaway said that Griffin’s body could be seen from Exposition Boulevard.
Hathaway’s testimony was similar to that given by a handful of first responders who also testified Tuesday afternoon, including firefighters, police and paramedics. They arrived to Hathaway's driveway to find Griffin beyond medical attention, with her wallet and shoes away from her body, closer to the curb near that torn up bush. Almost all of them spoke to the long trail of blood seeping onto the pavement of Exposition Boulevard from Griffin's body.
Crime scene specialist Juanita Vasquez spoke to more than 50 photographs she took of Griffin's body and the surrounding area. Members of Griffin’s family cried and looked down as Courtney’s body, uncovered, was shown to the court--her sister and father left the room when the photos were introduced.
Nestande also began to cry and look down, almost looking ill, when Griffin’s body was on the screen.
Vasquez also described photos she took of Nestande's damaged black BMW, which was parked at her boyfriend's apartment on Windsor Road, just blocks from Griffin's body.
Detailed photographs of the windshield showed heavy ‘spiderweb’ type cracking. Vasquez said inside of those cracks she collected bits of skin tissue, hair follicles and clothing fibers that were the same color of Griffin’s shirt at the time of the collision.
The defense asked if those items were only visible when magnified with a camera lens, to which Vasquez answered no, they were noticeable from a distance.
There was also damage to the front bumper, particularly to one of the headlights. Plastic from those lights matched plastic fragments found at the scene.
Court wrapped up shortly before 5 p.m., and will resume at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
Not only will the court hear from Nestande as the trial moves forward, but also from her boyfriend, William Marchbanks and sister, Francesca Nestande.
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.
Click here to re-watch YNN’s live chat from trial, and log on Wednesday to take part in the day two discussion.