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Nestande found guilty of criminally negligent homicide

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Gabrielle Nestande was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide, but not guilty of failure to stop and render aid, in the hit-and-run death of 30-year-old Courtney Griffin on May 27, 2011. The decision came Thursday afternoon after a Travis County jury deliberated for 21 hours over two days.

The 12 jurors took into consideration indictments of intoxication manslaughter and manslaughter against the 25-year-old. The difference between manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide involves the use of recklessness. By definition, in the charge to the jury, criminally negligent homicide means Nestande did not know the risks of getting behind the wheel.

Criminally negligent homicide is a state jail felony, punishable by 180 days to two years in jail, but because the jury also ruled that Nestande used her car as a deadly weapon, she faces a heightened sentence of two to 10 years in prison.

Nestande was attempting to drive home after drinking at a Rainey Street bar when she struck Griffin with her black BMW in the early morning hours. Griffin’s body was found in a driveway off Exposition Boulevard shortly before 5 a.m.

Nestande, an Orange County, California native, was arrested in the State Capitol office of Rep. Wayne Christian, where she worked as a legislative aide.

It’s a day that Courtney’s father, Bart Griffin, says is a continuing nightmare.

Griffin took the stand as the state's sole witness in the punishment phase of the trial, which began shortly after the verdict was read. He told the court about Courtney Griffin’s caretaking nature—from being a big sister to her younger siblings Chandler and Cramer, to fostering animals and taking on the role of nanny to dozens of families.

On a screen in the courtroom, photos were shown of Courtney Griffin growing up, attending Austin neighborhood schools including Zilker Elementary and O’Henry Middle School. A recent snapshot showed her surrounded by smiling kids, the ones Bart Griffin said “absolutely loved her.”

“She was the life of the party. I don't care where you went to, she was the life of the party,” Griffin said. “She always had a good time.”

Griffin worked as a veterinary technician at the Lake Austin Animal Hospital. Bart said his daughter was always fostering and caring for animals, and was even an owner of a three-legged cat, “which was normal for Courtney.”

What wasn’t normal, Bart says, is the morning of May 27, 2011, when he noticed he had 10 missed calls on his phone. When he got on the line with Chandler, she told them his eldest daughter was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver.

"It is something I will never forget when your own daughter has to tell you Courtney had been killed," Bart said. “And left on the side of the road.”

Griffin told the jury that the more than 21 months of the criminal process has been a struggle for both him and his family, and now that the verdict is in, “the nightmare continues,” he said.

After Griffin, the father on the other side of the courtroom, Bruce Nestande, took the stand.

He began by telling the court about a genetic heart condition suffered in his family. He said tests showed Gabrielle had the same condition as he and his son Barry Nestande, who died of cardiac arrest in 2010. Nestande told the court his daughter had surgery to place a defibrillator in her chest.

The former California Assemblyman also said his daughter has not had a drink since the night of the accident, and he doesn’t believe she ever had a problem with alcohol.

Since the accident, he said he didn’t think “alcohol will ever be a part of her life.”

But in cross examination Assistant District Attorney Allison Wetzel asked about a charge at an Austin liquor store made on the credit card he and Gabrielle share. The purchase was on May 30, 2011--days after the accident--when both of them were in the Capital City making arrangements to move her back to California.

Bruce Nestande answered Wetzel’s question about the charge stating, “if it’s there, it’s there.” He guarantees, however, that Nestande has not consumed alcohol since the crash.

As for Nestande’s actions the night in question, and the past eight days of trial, "I believe my daughter," Bruce said. "I told her to be yourself, tell the truth. I wasn't concerned."

Bruce Nestande, as well as family friend Karen Dort, testified about the defendant’s volunteer work before and after the accident. Dort’s daughter, Andrea, has been best friends with Gabrielle since the sixth grade.

Dort said Gabrielle was there for her daughter Andrea when her husband died in 2004.

"She is loving, very compassionate. She cares,” Dort said. "I think she is a little bit naive."

Nestande’s mother, Pam, and Dort participated in various mother-daughter volunteer efforts throughout the girls’ high school years, in a program similar to the Junior League, Dort said.

Both Dort and Bruce Nestande said Gabrielle didn’t volunteer during her time in Austin, but Bruce said his daughter has been serving at a local private elementary school since being back in California.

Travis County probation officer Melissa Astrowski was also called by the defense, who testified to the details and options of probation, if that's what the jury hands Nestande.

Astrowski explained what it would mean if Nestande were to serve probation in her home state of California, admitting the process is somewhat “complicated.”

She said her knowledge is that probation officers in California don’t meet as often with offenders as in Travis County. She said the system isn’t foolproof in regard to whether Travis County would be alerted to any parole violations the offender may commit in California.

The state submitted one more piece of evidence for the jury review during punishment deliberations, but it was not disclosed to the court audience.

Before the trial began Nestande and her defense team elected to have her sentenced by the jury, instead of the judge.

Closing arguments in the punishment phase begin 9 a.m. Friday. Then, the jury will begin another round of deliberations.

Our Sebastian Robertson has more on the public's reaction to the verdict.

TWC News: Nestande found guilty of criminally negligent homicide
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