At some point in our growing up we learn that life is not just. We want it to be; fairy tales and movies so often tell us it will be, but it is not.
For the family of Courtney Griffin, whose hit and run killer, Gabrielle Nestande, 25, was just convicted of “criminally negligent homicide with a deadly weapon” yet walked away with the “wrist slap” of 10 years suspended with no jail time, there is no justice for their loved one’s death. None at all.
Before we look at the facts, I want to share this first paragraph of an article written back in May of 2011 in the OC Weekly:
The apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree: former Orange County Supervisor and state Assemblyman Bruce Nestande served six months of house arrest and three years probation after pleading guilty in 2007 to driving drunk the wrong way on a one-way street and hitting a parked car. Now his 23-year-old daughter, Gabrielle Jane Nestande, has been charged with alleged felony hit-and-run in the death of a woman in Texas early Friday, although alcohol is not believed to have been a factor.
Well, at least back in May of 2011 alcohol was not believed to be a factor. Since then, as expected, a lot more about Gabrielle Nestande has been uncovered, including the fact that she was profoundly drunk while driving the night she killed Courtney Griffin. From a later piece in the OCWeekly:
Gabrielle Nestande, who previously worked on Rick Perry’s gubernatorial campaign, had originally been charged with failure to stop and render aid in the death of Courtney Griffin, who was walking along Exposition Boulevard when she was run down in 2011. The former capitol staffer was indicted on the more serious offenses of manslaughter and intoxication manslaughter in October, setting her up for as many as 20 years in prison with a conviction.
That sounds about right, right? Well, since then the trial has occurred, with evidence presented that after a night of drinking to celebrate being honored for her work with Lone Star State GOP legislator, Wayne Christian, Nestande got in her BMW to drive home and claims that, in a moment of looking down at her phone to check an alarm she had set (another bad move), “something struck her car.” That would’ve been the moment she mowed down Courtney Griffin, who was walking home at that time from a friend’s house. Nestande did not stop to see what that “something” was; she drove off and, clearly not in a logical state of mind (later determined to be intoxicated), she parked her battered car in full view about a half-mile from where she plowed over Griffin.
Around 5 a.m. Friday, a homeowner found the bloodied body of Courtney Paige Griffin, 30, in the driveway of his home in Tarrytown. She had been thrown through a bush, and there was a piece of a broken headlight lens nearby.
An anonymous call came in around 9 a.m. from someone who spotted a black BMW 3 Series sedan with a broken windshield parked in the driveway of a home about a half-mile from where Griffin’s body was found. Upon closer inspection, police discovered damage to the front right quarterpanel and bumper, the windshield and the passenger side mirror. Pieces of clothing were lodged in cracks in the windshield.
The car was traced to Nestande, who had parked at the home of an acquaintance Thursday night before getting a ride to her job Friday morning in the office of Texas Rep. Wayne Christian (R-Center), where she works as an administrative aide. Someone at the home told police Nestande had arrived in tears, saying someone threw something at her car’s windshield. [Source]
“Someone threw something at her car’s windshield”? How drunk do you have to be to hit a human body, shatter your windshield, trash your mirror and have the victim’s clothing stuck in your car and still not be aware you’d just run somebody over? How drunk do you have to be to not at least stop and see what the hell just shattered your windshield? You can answer that question yourself, but here’s a video of Nestande’s first interview with police. It is astonishing to watch her coyness the morning after drunkenly killing somebody:
From there it was all the usual legal machinations. An admission of being the driver but “not knowing what to do”; an arrest, charges of intoxication manslaughter, manslaughter and failure to stop and render aid, and a trial set. And it was that trial that just concluded earlier this week with a guilty charge for “criminally negligent homicide,” followed by the jury’s sentencing recommendation of 10 years probation with no jail time. No jail time for driving drunk, killing a pedestrian, then leaving the scene without offering aid. What are we missing?
It’s possible the judge, at the formal sentencing hearing in March, will reject this recommendation – one can hope – but it’s hard to figure what led this jury (9 men, 3 women) to their decision. One also wonders how they found her not guilty of “failure to stop and render aid” or the greater charge of “intoxication manslaughter.” They are, understandably, not talking at the moment (though likely that will change if the media swarms and TV interviews and possible fame and fortune are dangled). Nestande’s lawyer made the point that her beleaguered client can’t control and shouldn’t be judged by the family she was born into but one can’t help but question whether or not undue influence played a role in such a shockingly light sentence for such a grievously devastating crime. Nestande works in a powerful circle of Texas Republican politics and her father’s pedigree is well-known:
Nestande’s father was a special assistant to then-Governor Ronald Reagan in the early 1970s and chairman of the state GOP from 1972-73. He got elected to the state Assembly out of Orange County in 1974 and remained in the lower house through 1980. He was an Orange County supervisor from 1980-87. He chaired the California Transportation Commission and, in 1994, Michael Huffington‘s unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate. His son by another mother, Brian Nestande, is currently a state assemblyman out of the Palm Desert area. [Source]
Any linkage there? Anyone want to speak up?
Courtney Griffin’s family is devastated, as one can well imagine. Her grieving mother was stunned by the wrist slap of her daughter’s killer, feeling that a 15-30 year prison sentence would have been more appropriate. Apparently Nestande’s lawyer commented in response that Nestande will, after all, be a convicted felon for the rest of her life. Presumably that offered cold comfort to the Griffins. Sobbing, post sentencing, Griffin’s mother, Laurie, spoke of wanting to prevent any other family from going through what they’re going through (that video can be seen here). But a sentencing as inappropriate as this will offer little deterrent to those who drink and drive.
Asked what message the sentence sent to the community, Griffin said: “Everybody just go out tonight, drink, get behind the wheel, drive through neighborhoods and hit innocent people.”
Prosecutor Mary Farrington argued against probation in her closing argument Friday, saying Nestande needed to be punished, that a prison sentence would send a message of deterrence to the community and that monitoring Nestande during her probation would be impractical if she chose to return to California.
“You can punish this defendant for taking Courtney’s life,” Farrington said. “Her car is kind of like a gun. She’s checking her alarm and because of that Courtney is dead.” [Source]
Interestingly, while her father testified at the sentencing hearing that Nestande has not had a drink since the hit and run, the prosecutor presented a credit card receipt from an Austin liquor store transacted just days after the incident. Of course, it was noted that she and her father share the credit card, so hard to know, then, which Nestande was purchasing liquor at the time… the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, indeed.
Ultimately, this tragic tale serves only as a reminder of injustice, heartbreak, irresponsible behavior, and, potentially, undue influence. I’ll leave it with a quote from Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo:
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.
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 men and women of the Austin Police Department will continue to tirelessly pursue those who place our community and families in dire risk of serious injury and death as a result of their criminal acts. We will also join the Texas law enforcement community in vigorously pursuing penalty enhancements at the Legislature for those who fail to stop and render aid to their victims. [Source]
UPDATE: The formal sentencing hearing for Gabrielle Nestande is scheduled for March 25. Any readers or concerned citizens who might want to send a response to the judge regarding this case can do so at the following address. Civility required.
The Honorable Karen Sage
Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center
PO Box 1748, Austin TX 78767
Phone: (512) 854-9442, Fax: (512) 854-6494.
[See video of jury sentencing recommendation for "criminally negligent homicide": 10 years jail time ... suspended]: