An Orange County jury deadlocked – barely – Wednesday in the trial of a San Diego woman accused of being too distracted by her cell phone to avoid a freeway crash in Westminster that killed a young motorist in 2011.

Jurors voted 11-1 for guilt on a charge of grossly negligent vehicular manslaughter, prompting Orange County Superior Court Judge Steven Bromberg to declare a mistrial for Jorene Ypanto Nicolas.

Jorene Ypanto Nicolas, of San Diego, in court earlier in case where she's accused of distracted driving. Photo
Jorene Ypanto Nicolas, of San Diego, in court earlier in case where she’s accused of distracted driving. Photo

Jurors deliberated for about 16 hours, beginning Wednesday afternoon, before announcing they were unable to break their impasse.

Attorneys will return to court May 16 to discuss a date for a retrial, but Nicolas, 31, has claimed she has a conflict with defense attorney Eric Lampel and is asking for a public defender for her case.

Jurors told Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker that the holdout panelist refused to believe the testimony of West Vandiver, an Orange County district attorney’s investigator who specializes in collision reconstruction.

“He literally accused Vandiver of perjury,” one juror complained to Walker. The juror said the holdout claimed to be a physicist and brought in a magnifying glass to examine evidence, which Walker said would have been cause to kick him off the panel.

Another juror told reporters that the panel felt Nicolas was guilty because there was evidence she was texting and talking on her phone around the time of the April 27, 2011, collision. They doubted the testimony of another witness who said she felt the victim, Deanna Mauer, 23, caused the crash.

Lampel complained that the judge did not allow jurors to hear that Mauer was on her phone, speaking to her mother, at the time of the crash.

Vandiver testified that according to data from an event data recorder – like the black box commonly referred to in plane crashes – on the defendant’s car, Nicolas was going at least 84.7 mph before her Toyota Prius slammed into the victim’s Hyundai sedan in gridlocked traffic on the San Diego (405) Freeway.

“A normal person under the same circumstances” would have slowed down when seeing traffic come to a halt, Walker said in her opening statement, noting that the crash happened about 10:55 a.m. on a “clear day” in the northbound lanes of the 405 near Edwards Street.

A witness, Jack Jeffries, told investigators that he noticed traffic had stopped and after hearing “screeching,” followed by a “loud bang,” felt one of the cars collide with his Porsche, Walker said.

“He saw the defendant using her phone” after the collision, the prosecutor said.

Lampel characterized the collision as a “tragic auto accident … that’s all it is,” and said “the evidence will show Ms. Nicolas was not inattentive.”

His client was “going with the flow of traffic” before the collision, Lampel said.

“No one saw brake lights (activated on the victim’s car) prior to the time (Mauer) swerved in front of the defendant,” Lampel said.

Another witness, Erica Cruz, was driving her Range Rover north when she noticed the Hyundai swerving, in the way a California Highway Patrol officer might to create a traffic break, Lampel said.

A juror said the other 10 panelists who voted for guilt thought Cruz was mistaken.

The victim’s car was moving so “erratically” that it caught Cruz’s attention and she slowed to get a better view of what was happening, Lampel said. Cruz saw Mauer swerve in front of the defendant’s car before slamming into the center divider, Lampel said.

Lampel said Jeffries earlier offered investigators a similar account, but changed his statement after meeting with an expert for the prosecutors.

Witness Paul McKinnon testified that he saw traffic halted and had no trouble slowing down to avoid a collision. When he “heard a loud crash,” he checked his rear- and side-view mirrors and was concerned one of the vehicles would slam into his.

McKinnon said he got out of his car and tried to free the victim, but wasn’t able to get her out of the wreckage until another man on the scene helped.

Mauer was unconscious, and McKinnon testified that he held her neck to “stabilize” her while waiting for paramedics. He said the defendant did not check on the victim while McKinnon waited for first responders to arrive.

Mauer, who had been wearing her seatbelt, was pronounced dead at UC Irvine Medical Center about seven hours after the crash. Nicolas sustained minor cuts in the crash.

The defendant told the court her conflict with her attorney stems from the fact she’s been without a driver’s license since the crash, keeping her from being able to work.

– City News Service