During the sixth day of testimony in her hit-and-run trial, 25-year-old Gabrielle Nestande admitted to having four to five drinks at Clive Bar on Rainey Street before she got behind the wheel in the early morning hours of May 27, 2011 and struck and killed Courtney Griffin with her black BMW.
Nestande took the stand in the mid-morning Tuesday. Her defense attorney Sam Bassett started off questioning by asking, “Who is responsible for the death of Courtney Griffin?”
After breaking down in tears and grabbing for a tissue, Nestande took a moment to answer and said, “Mine.”
Griffin was struck when Nestande was attempting to drive to her home from her boyfriend William Marchbanks’ apartment on Windsor Road.
During testimony, Nestande said she was driving down Exposition Boulevard a few blocks from Marchbanks place when she decided to check her iPhone to see if her alarm was set for the next morning. “In an instant,” she says, her windshield was shattered.
The former legislative aide told Assistant District Attorney Allison Wetzel she pulled over immediately, and looked behind her and in her rear view mirror to see what struck her. She did not see anything, she told Wetzel, and became very frightened someone was out there who deliberately threw something at her car.
"You were just all by yourself, a girl, and you were scared?" Wetzel asked Nestande. "Mmm-hmm," she answered.
Nestande then began to drive to her apartment in Oak Hill, but once on MoPac, she observed the damage to her windshield further and became scared about staying at her apartment alone. It was at that point she drove back to Marchbanks’ apartment, because she wanted a “guy to see what happened.”
When Wetzel asked why Nestande didn’t consider a police officer as a better person to investigate the issue, she told the jury it “didn’t even cross my mind.”
But Nestande fell asleep while Marchbanks went outside to look for a possible perpetrator throwing objects at cars, and they did not speak until 6:30 a.m. that morning.
Nestande then left Marchbanks’ place and took his car to her job in Rep. Wayne Christian’s office at the State Capitol. When looking at the BMW’s damage in the morning light, she said she concluded she must have hit a deer. On her way, she told friends she was worried about her father becoming angry for the damage to her car.
“Because he scares me,” she said, “When he gets mad.”
Nestande said when she first saw DPS troopers enter the office of Rep. Christian she thought it was weird, but it wasn’t until she was called in to speak to officers wearing “vehicular homicide” shirts that she knew what happened.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Nestande said on the stand.
That morning, Nestande sent a picture of the damage to her windshield to dozens of friends. She shook her head through tears when Wetzel asked if she noticed any clothing fibers or human tissue on the windshield, as investigators and witnesses testified to seeing earlier during the trial.
Nestande also shook her head ‘no’ when Wetzel asked if she had observed any deer fur on the windshield as well.
Going over bar tabs from Clive Bar, round by round, Nestande detailed to Wetzel the drinks she had that night. She said she had one full beer, but also drank part of three to four more. She said she did not finish the others because they warmed up and she preferred cold beer. She said she had one sip of a Diet Coke and vodka, and then one shot, which was captured on surveillance footage.
In all, Nestande said she had one drink and one shot, and neglected to drink four to five other beers and one mixed drink.
"I wasn't slamming back drinks," Nestande said. "You slammed back the shot right?" Wetzel asked. "Right," she answered.
When Wetzel asked Nestande if she felt buzzed after taking the shot, the California native asked what she meant. Wetzel said buzzed meant she was feeling the effects of alcohol at all. Nestande said yes.
“A little bit,” she said. “I mean we were having fun.”
On the stand, Nestande maintained that despite exhaustion from work and her previous drinks, she did not feel intoxicated at any moment through the episode and never felt like she lost control of herself.
After lunch, Wetzel questioned Nestande briefly on whether it was safe to look down at your phone while behind the wheel. Nestande said she looked at her phone for five to 10 seconds to check her alarm when the accident occurred.
Nestande admitted on the stand that cell phones and other factors, like the radio, can distract drivers. Looking back, she says her actions could be considered reckless, but that was not her intention.
"I never thought it would end in something like this," Nestande said. "I know so many people look at their phones, sometimes its reckless, sometimes it's not."
When Wetzel asked her why she looked heavier in a video recorded interview at the Capitol before her arrest, Nestande told the jury she had lost 34 pounds since the accident. She said this was because she was eating healthy and working out. She also told the jury that she hasn’t had a drink since May 27, 2011. She also has been living with her parents in Palm Desert, Calif. since the accident.
Nestande was called down from the stand quickly after lunch. Prosecutors then called a rebuttal witness, Brett Morrison. Morrison texted McStephen Dadzie, a previous witness, about the accident when he saw it on the news that afternoon.
Morrison said Dadzie immediately answered and saw she saw Nestande that night, who fell when leaving Clive Bar.
He was also quickly excused, and shortly after, the defense rested. The jury will be read Nestande's formal charge, and then opening arguments could begin. Each side has been given one hour.