PARIS — A key piece of state's evidence against a teenage driver charged with manslaughter won't be admissible in court.
In a decision filed this week, active retired Justice Robert W. Clifford partially granted a motion to suppress statements made by Kristina Lowe, 19, of West Paris, to Maine State Police while she was in the hospital recovering from crash-related injuries.
Lowe was charged with manslaughter in the deaths of Rebecca Mason, 16, of West Paris and Logan Dam, 19, of Norway, in January. Lowe also faces two charges of operating under the influence, causing death, and one count of aggravated leaving the scene of an accident. In June, she pleaded not guilty to the charges.
According to police, Lowe and her friends were returning to an underage drinking party in West Paris when the crash occurred around midnight Jan. 6. Another passenger, Jacob Skaff of Paris, also was injured.
Early in the morning after the crash, Lowe was at Maine Medical Center in Portland when she spoke with a Maine State Police trooper.
Lowe's attorney, James Howaniec, said Lowe had been administered opiate medications, including morphine and Fentanyl, and was in no condition to speak with a state trooper. She suffered a broken back, a possible concussion and an abdominal injury, among other injuries. She also suffered frostbite after leaving the car and walking back to the party.
Howaniec also argued that Lowe wasn't read her Miranda rights, although she was told she could stop testifying at any time.
Clifford seemed to disagree that the medication made her unable to answer questions, writing that Lowe “gave appropriate answers to questions.”
Clifford's partial granting of a motion to suppress is based on the failure to read Lowe her Miranda rights. In the decision, he marked a point in the interview where her testimony becomes inadmissible. Maine State Trooper Lauren Edstrom, who interviewed Lowe, did not read her her Miranda rights, Clifford wrote, even when it became clear Lowe may have been the driver.
Lowe initially said she couldn't remember who was driving but was pretty sure it was Skaff. Later in the interview, Edstrom questioned those statements and told Lowe police would figure out who was driving.
“If I knew 100 percent that I was driving, I would have told you,” Lowe is quoted as telling Edstrom. “I'm like 80 percent positive that Jake was the one that drove back.”
“Because of the evidence available to Trooper Edstrom, as the interview proceeded, it became increasingly clear that defendant was the focus of the investigation,” Clifford wrote in the 10-page decision. At one point, Edstrom broke off the interview to call another state trooper.
“From the time the interview resumed after Trooper Edstrom took a break to call Sergeant Shedd, the defendant was both in custody and subject to interrogation within the meaning of Miranda,” Clifford wrote.
Assistant District Attorney Joseph O'Connor confirmed Friday that the inadmissible portion includes Lowe's statements that she was texting at the time of the accident. He said he has contacted the Attorney General's Office about the possibility of appealing Clifford's decision.
Howaniec said Clifford made the right decision. “We're definitely pleased with the order,” he said Friday. “It really eliminates any evidence about texting.”
Howaniec said the Maine crime lab found no forensic evidence that Lowe was texting at the time of the crash. He attributes the crash to ice on the road.
Howaniec said he's “trying to assess what remains of the state's case” and hopes to settle it without going to trial.
The crash has inspired efforts against texting and driving in recent months, as awareness groups have been formed and Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School dedicated a day to drunk and distracted driving awareness.