AUSTIN (KXAN) - One day after being convicted of criminally negligent homicide in the May 2011 hit-and-run death of a woman in West Austin, Gabrielle Nestande was given a 10-year suspended sentence and will serve no jail time on the recommendation of the jury on Friday afternoon.
The jurors returned to the courtroom around 3 p.m. Nestande was seen crying as she entered the courtroom and was being comforted by her father.
She was standing with her lawyers when the verdict was read and had regained her composure once the proceedings began. Laurie Griffin, the mother of the woman who died in the May 2011 hit-and-run, told reporters the family was "heartbroken" by the jury's recommendation.
She said a 15-year prison sentence, or even 30 years, would have been appropriate. Griffin said she and family members were not moved by Nestande's testimony that she had thought she'd run over a deer on the night of the crash.
"We'll never believe that lie was the truth," she said. "She killed my daughter."
State District Judge Karen Sage said she plans to examine the terms of the probation and make a final ruling in the case on March 25. In the jury's recommendation read by Sage, the jury said members took into consideration Nestande's otherwise clean record.
Nestande and her defense team left the courtroom though the judge's chambers after the proceedings ended. They left the Travis County Justice Center through a rear exit. Several jurors said they did not wish to comment as they left the court complex.
Later, lawyers for Nestande told reporters that they believed the punishment was appropriate.
"There's no question that she is relieved at the sentence," said Perry Minton. "She is a very, very somber individual about the loss that the Griffin family endured and continues to endure."
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo issued a statement that did not mask his disappointment with the sentence.
"While I'm deeply disappointed, I'm not surprised about the jury's decision(s) based upon a history of permissiveness in our community as it relates to holding criminal suspects accountable for their actions," he said. "My heart goes out to the Griffin family who have been sentenced to a lifetime without their loving daughter, with woefully minor consequences for the individual responsible for this senseless and completely avoidable tragedy."
The Travis County District Attorney's Office said this case could affect future ones with similar circumstances.
"These intoxication manslaughter cases are really complex," said assistant DA Allison Wetzel. "And the, I think the next case that comes in will be judged on the strength of that case, and the background of the defendant. Certainly, people who are making decision about what a jury might do, they'll keep that in mind. They'll know what a jury did on this case."
Prosecutors said after the courthouse had cleared that the judge still has the authority to sentence Nestande to up to 180 days behind bars when the sentence is made formal on March 25.
Earlier in the day, both the prosecution and the defense team laid out their arguments for what each said she be the appropriate sentence for the 25-year-old former Capitol aide.
Assistant District Attorney Mary Farrington urged the jury to send Nestande to prison. "We don't feel probation is appropriate in this case," she said. "It's not a just sentence. She is eligible, not entitled to probation.
"Send a message. Let this family know and this community know Courtney's life had meaning. Probation is not accountability."
The prosecutor said the terms of a probated sentence are far too lenient considering the consequences of Nestande's action. She also told jurors that if they believed drinking was a factor in the crash and her decision not to report it to police, it should be taken into account when assessing the sentence.
"Is that the kind of message you want to send? Go out, drink, drive, hit people, leave?" Farrington said.
Defense attorney Perry Minton, in his closing, reminded the jury that Nestande must live with what happened for the rest of her life. He rejected the prosecution's argument that probation would be too lenient.
"If anyone thinks this is a slap on the wrist, they are wrong," said Minton, who added that it's not the jury's job to send a message. "She is convicted of a felony and will be convicted felon rest of her life."
He argued that Nestande is not a future threat to public safety. He asked the jury "to be open-minded"
"We put people in prison we are scared of, not that we are mad at," Minton said.
Sam Bassett, another defense lawyer, said Nestande "is worth the risk" of granting probation. She has held a job, performed volunteer work and expressed remorse for her actions, Bassett said.
Wetzel told the jury that Nestande has still not spent a night in custody since the death of Griffin. Wetzel also dispute any portrayal as a helpless young woman. Instead,
she said, Nestande committed "a cowardly and selfish act" by leaving the crash site.
"This is not a little girl," Wetzel said. "Her lawyers try to make her feel frail and helpless. She is an adult woman who has made choices that hurt people."
She urged the jury to hand down a sentence that tells the Griffin family, 'Here is what your daughter means to us."
"The rest of us will live with what decision you make," Wetzel said. "When you come out, I hope you can look Courtney's family in the eye."
The closing statements wrapped up at 10:55 a.m. and the jury was set to begin deliberating the sentence.
The guilty verdict, handed down Thursday after 21 hours of deliberation of three days, cleared Nestande of the intoxication manslaughter and manslaugter charges, and the charge of failure to stop and render aid. However, the jury also determined that the vehicle was driving in the overnight hours of May 26-27, 2011 was used as a deadly weapon in the crash.
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