The family of a woman killed in what authorities called a case of distracted driving entered an Orange County courtroom Wednesday expecting to hear the accused driver enter a guilty plea nearly four years after the fatal collision.
Instead, Jorene Nicolas, of San Diego, asked for a new attorney after turning down a plea deal that would have resulted in one year in prison. Wednesday's surprise twist means another trial for the accused and the family of 23-year-old Deanna Mauer.
The first trial ended about a year ago with a deadlocked jury.
"Definitely, this is a criminal justice system because the only thing that gets any justice is the criminal," said Dawn Mauer, who wears a necklace with her daughter's picture and a bracelet with her name.
Deanna Mauer's father, Howard, who has a tattoo of his daughter on his arm, wonders when the case will end.
"A lot of people are taking their time out of their day to come in and support our daughter, support us," he said, choking up. "Not good ... not good."
Nicolas, then 28, was traveling at least 80 mph when she crashed her Toyota Prius into the back of Mauer's Hyundai sedan in April 2011 on the 405 Freeway, according to crash investigators. Traffic was at a near-standstill, but Nicolas was distracted by her cellphone and failed to notice, prosecutors said.
She did not brake or slow before slamming into Mauer's vehicle, which was pushed into another vehicle, according to the district attorney's office. Nicolas then hit the freeway's center divider before coming to a stop, facing south in the northbound lanes.
Mauer, a star former softball player at Fountain Valley High School and coach at San Juan Hills High School, died at a hospital. She was wearing a seat belt.
Her father and mother have attended dozens of court hearings.
"I have never owned a cellphone, I will never own a cellphone for the rest of my life," said Howard Mauer after Wednesday's court proceeding.
Nicolas was hospitalized for minor cuts.
In April 2014, a jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of a conviction, leading to the retrial. Prosecutors said during the first trial that there was evidence of cellphone use by Nicolas, but that it was not clear whether it involved talking, texting or both.
"I thought for sure she'd enter a plea and that it was right for her to do so so she could move on with her life and so could the victim's family," said one of the former jurors, Sharon Aguilera, outside court.
In an interview last year with The Orange County Register after the mistrial, Nicolas characterized the crash as a "tragic accident" and said that Mauer swerved in front of her on the freeway.
"She veered into my lane, so I avoided her and I hit the center divider," Nicolas told the Register. "That's when my air bags deployed."