A woman was convicted of vehicular manslaughter Thursday in a distracted driving crash that killed a 23-year-old high school softball coach on a Southern California freeway.
Prosecutors said Jorene Nicolas, 32, of San Diego, sent 14 text messages and made two phones calls in the 15 minutes before she crashed her car into the back of vehicle stopped in traffic, killing its 23-year-old Deanna Mauer. Nicolas' retrial started in July after about four years of court battles, including last year's trial that ended with a deadlocked jury.
The victim's family members cried as the verdict was read.
"I don't have a life anymore, without her," said the victim's mother, Dawn Mauer. "It just stopped my life."
Nicolas faces of up to six years in prison for the Westminster crash. When the judge decided Nicolas would head straight to jail Thursday, she had to say goodbye to her four-year-old daughter.
"I know she has a tough exterior. She's trying to be strong for herself and her family," said Joe Dane, Nicolas' defense attorney. "Do I think she's remorseful? Absolutely."
She had the option of taking a plea deal that would have resulted in one year in prison, but declined and opted to stand trial.
Nicolas' attorney called the prosecutor's' arguments flawed, referring to the crash as an accident.
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 argued.
"It was the driving, it was the speed, and it was the lack of attention that was obvious," said Fritz Walden, one of the jurors.
She did not brake or slow before slamming into Mauer's vehicle, which was pushed into a Porsche in front of it, 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.
An Event Data Recorder -- known informally as a "black box" -- in Nicolas' 2006 Prius indicated she was driving 85 mph at the time of the 10:58 a.m. collision, according to Senior Deputy District
Attorney Jennifer Walker. From 10:42 a.m. until 10:56 a.m., there's a record of the defendant sending 13 text messages, the prosecutor said. At 10:57 a.m., records indicate she took a call, according to Walker.
"She's doing this actively, not paying attention, driving 20 miles per hour over the limit," Walker said, telling jurors that northbound traffic ahead had come to a halt due to another collision.
Another motorist, who was stopped in traffic in his Porsche, looked up and noticed Mauer's Hyundai behind him, also idling, for about 30 seconds, Walker said. He recognized the driver because he saw her earlier in traffic and thought she was "cute," the prosecutor said.
"Then he heard an explosion," Walker said. "Then he felt an impact to his vehicle that pinged him like a pinball."
Jack Jeffries told investigators that Nicolas did not try to help Mauer and instead hobbled back toher car to retrieve her phone and make calls, Walker said.
Dane questioned the accuracy of the computer data from the car and suggested Mauer may have caused the crash. Nicolas previously claimed that Mauer was responsible for the crash.
"She veered into my lane, so I avoided her and I hit the center divider," Nicolas told reporters last year after her first trial. "I tried to avoid her and her car spun out and hit the center divider."
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.
"I hope that others take this as a message, and they use it, and they say, I'm going to use my life to drive behind the wheel with both hands on it, and put that phone in the back of the car," said Jennifer Walker, Deputy District Attorney.