PORTLAND — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has upheld a lower court decision suppressing the confession of Kristina Lowe, who is charged with two counts of manslaughter in the deaths of Rebecca Mason and Logan Dam last year.
Last December, active retired Justice Robert W. Clifford partially granted a motion to suppress statements made by Lowe, 19, of West Paris, to a Maine State Police trooper while she was in the hospital recovering from crash-related injuries. In August, the state appealed Clifford's decision.
In its decision, the seven-member Supreme Court affirmed Clifford's order, finding that while Lowe initially agreed to speak with police, she should have been read her Miranda warning after police learned that two of the passengers in the car had died and Lowe had become a focus of the police investigation.
The suppressed statements include Lowe's confession to driving the vehicle and statements that indicate she was texting on her cellphone immediately before the crash on Route 219 in West Paris in the early hours of Jan. 7, 2012.
According to the Supreme Court order, Lowe “lay in the hospital, sedated, frostbitten, immobilized and severely injured when a Maine State Police trooper, without providing Miranda warnings, questioned her about the car accident.”
Lowe's attorney, James Howaniec, said Thursday he was pleased the court upheld Clifford's order.
“It's heartening to see courts upholding the principle of the Miranda rule,” Howaniec said. “It's been an important part of American jurisprudence for more than half a century and courts are consistently upholding the idea that people should be advised of their rights before talking to police, and that didn't happen in this case.”
According to police, Lowe, Mason, 16, of West Paris, Dam, 19, of Norway and Jacob Skaff, 22, of Norway were returning from a drinking party in West Paris when the crash occurred. Police allege Lowe was speeding, had been drinking and was texting on her cellphone before the crash.
In addition to the manslaughter charges, Lowe faces two counts of operating under the influence, causing death, and one count of aggravated leaving the scene of the accident. In June last year, she pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The state trooper interviewed Lowe on the night of the crash, while she was being treated for her injuries at Maine Medical Center in Portland.
At the beginning of the audio-taped interview, the trooper told Lowe she could stop the interview at any time but did not read Miranda warnings because the trooper did not consider Lowe to be in custody.
During the initial questioning, Lowe denied being the driver of the car and said she was "80 percent sure" the driver was Skaff. About halfway through the interview, the trooper took a five-minute break and was informed there were two fatalities in the crash. The trooper returned to Lowe's hospital room and told Lowe that police now believed Skaff was a passenger, not the driver, and that two of her friends had died.
According to the court's decision, Lowe began crying uncontrollably and made “inculpatory statements” to the trooper, who questioned Lowe for several more minutes without reading her the Miranda rights.
According to the court, Clifford correctly found that after learning of the deaths, the trooper “gained sufficient information to consider Lowe a suspect in a criminal case.
“Viewed objectively, the information that the trooper learned during the break and communicated to Lowe produced a change in Lowe's liberty to end the interview. A reasonable person would not have felt at liberty to end the interrogation,” according to the Supreme Court ruling.
Assistant District Attorney Joseph O'Connor said Thursday the court's decision wasn't a surprise, but his office felt it was important to get a second opinion on the appeal.
"It's not what you'd call dis-positive; it doesn't conclude the case," O'Connor said. "It is still a try-able case if it comes to that."
He said Lowe's case would be placed on a future docket in Oxford County Superior Court in Paris.
Howaniec said he believed the state would have a difficult time proving its case without the suppressed evidence.
“We're hoping that in light of the decision we will be able to resolve this matter without a trial,” he said.
There is no evidence to prove Lowe was texting at the time of the accident and a police crash reconstruction report said alcohol was not a factor; Lowe had a 0.04 blood-alcohol level, Howaniec said. The legal threshold is 0.08.
“The thrust of the state's case is this is a distracted-driving case,” Howaniec said. “In light of the Supreme Court's decision, I think evidence pertaining to distracted driving has been effectively eliminated.”