Teen’s hospital confession ruled inadmissable in manslaughter case

Posted Oct. 31, 2013, at 12:33 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 01, 2013, at 5:52 a.m.
Kristina Lowe
Courtesy of Oxford County Jail
Kristina Lowe

PORTLAND, Maine — 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.

She has pleaded not guilty to the charges and, 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 while she was in the hospital recovering from crash-related injuries.

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.

According to the Law 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.”

In talking about her own injuries, Lowe told the trooper that two people “who had been in the backseat of the car were dead, and that a fourth person was likely the front seat passenger.”

According to the court, that confession was not voluntary because Lowe reasonably believed she was in police custody.

Reached Thursday, Lowe’s attorney James Howaniac said he was pleased the court upheld Clifford’s order.

“It’s heartening to see courts upholding the principle of the Miranda rule,” Howaniac 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 and the others were returning from a party in West Paris when the crash occurred in the early morning hours of Jan. 7, 2012. Police allege Lowe was speeding, had been drinking and was texting 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.

On the outset of the audiotaped interview, the trooper told Lowe that she could stop the interview at any time, but did not read Miranda warnings because she 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 her friend Jacob Skaff. About halfway through the interview, the trooper took a five-minute break and was informed there were two fatalities in the crash. She returned to Lowe’s hospital room and told Lowe that police now believed Skaff was a passenger, not the driver, and that two other passengers had died.

According to the court’s decision, Lowe began crying uncontrollably and made “inculpatory statements” to the officer, who questioned her for several more minutes without reading Lowe her Miranda rights.

According to the court, Clifford correctly found that after learning about the deaths, the officer “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 Law Court.

Reached Thursday, Assistant District Attorney Joe O’Conner said 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’Conner said. “It is still a tryable case if it comes to that.”

He said Lowe’s case will be placed on a future docket in Oxford County Superior Court.

Howaniec, on Thursday, 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, since Lowe only had a .04 blood-alcohol level, Howanic said.

“The thrust of the state’s case is this is a distracted driving case,” Howanic said. “In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, I think evidence pertaining to distracted driving has been effectively eliminated.”

 

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