By Erin Place
PARIS—Neither side of the Kristina Lowe manslaughter case—which left two West Paris teens dead two winters ago—feel that justice is being served.
Lowe is the now 21-year-old Oxford woman who in May a jury found responsible for the deaths of 16-year-old Rebecca Mason and 19-year-old Logan Dam. The trio and a fourth passenger, Jacob Skaff, were in a crash on Route 219 in West Paris in January 2012 after attending a party on Yeaton Lane. Lowe was found guilty on two counts of manslaughter and leaving the scene of a fatal accident, and two weeks ago was sentenced by Active Retired Justice Robert Clifford to serve 18 months in prison and four years of probation with special conditions.
Last week, Lowe’s defense attorney James Howaniec filed a motion to appeal the verdicts in Maine Supreme Court in Portland. He said by phone on Monday he had no intention of appealing the sentence, which he considered to be fair.
Jerrold Mason, Rebecca Mason’s father, took issue with what he sees as a light sentence. He said he thinks Clifford has been sympathetic to the defendant from the get go and believes if Lowe was male instead of female, she would have received a harsher sentence.
“Justice in this country has gone so far down hill,” Mason said Tuesday afternoon.
The defense had trouble understanding what Howaniec called an “inconsistent verdict” from the jury, since Lowe was found not guilty on two felony and two misdemeanor counts of Operating Under the Influence.
“What we do have a problem with is the conviction in the first place,” Howaniec said. “We feel that there was a lot of confusing evidence presented to the jury, evidence that should have never been presented to the jury.”
He said that before the trial, he and co-counsel Chelsea Peters filed a suppression motion to keep Lowe’s blood alcohol level (BAL) of 0.4 percent, along with traces of marijuana in her system, out of the trial. The motion was denied and Howaniec said the prosecution spent 90 percent of its case trying to prove Lowe was drunk at the time of the accident.
He pointed to Maine Supreme Court case law that implores the prosecution to be careful in presenting evidence of BAL or impairment when it comes to manslaughter charges. He called several of the party-goers bias against Lowe, noting they made statements of his client being “falling down drunk” when the forensic evidence suggested the contrary.
“It can really prejudice a jury against the defendant,” Howaniec said. “If all that evidence had not been presented, this case might have been looked at in a different light.”
If the case is reheard, Mason promised to push for forensic scientists to explain how, three hours after the fatal car accident and with a BAL of 0.4 percent, Lowe wasn’t impaired by alcohol. He said that her BAL was only 0.1 percent lower than what is considered legally drunk by the state of Maine. He also plans to continue monitoring underage drinking charges around the state to see if anyone is charged with a moving violation with the same or lower BAL Lowe had and, if so, figure out why this charge wasn’t lodged against her.
According to Howaniec, another major part of the appeal is the texting issue in the case. The jury heard previously suppressed evidence—which he said was because Lowe hadn’t been read her Miranda rights at the time she made a statement regarding what happened that winter night—from Lowe’s father, Earl Lowe.
“Her father testified to what he heard her say to a state trooper that an incoming text message came in, she glanced down at the phone, the car starting drifting off to the right, the boy in the back seat, Logan, reached over to correct the wheel and the accident happened,” Howaniec said.
The defense attorney plans to focus on specific state statute that he said came out a year or so before the fatal accident. It states the definition of text messaging is sending or reading an electronic transmission while driving. Howaniec said that everyone involved in the case agrees Lowe wasn’t sending out a text message at the time of the crash.
“There certainly wasn’t any forensic evidence that she was reading that text message,” he added.
Mason strongly disagrees with Howaniec and Clifford’s interpretation of texting, as the active retired justice said at the sentencing that Lowe “wasn’t actively texting” at the time of the accident.
“This was a texting case. Clifford was wrong on that,” he said.
One thing Howaniec and Mason agree on is that the case should have been transferred out of Oxford County, but for drastically different reasons. The defense attorney posits that the venue was too close to the accident site and with so much media attention and community involvement, he feels it became “an inflamed situation.” Mason wanted to see the case tried in a different county, one that deals with these types of cases on a more regulation basis, which might have given Lowe a stiffer sentence for leaving two teens dead.
Howaniec partially blames Jerrold Mason for the outcome of the trial.
“[It was] a jury that we think based its verdict on emotion instead of actual facts of the case. There were a dozen armed guards in the room, people with Hells Angels shirts on in the courtroom,” Howaniec said, adding the jury had to walk by this every day of the trial. “We feel that Mr. Mason had a very unduly influential impact in the case that impaired my client’s ability for a fair trial.”
Mason wondered how he could have influenced the jury, saying he never made contact with any of the jury members, nor did he know any of the people who made up the seven-woman, five-man body.
“I have no idea where he would have ever come up with anything like that,” he said.
The only thing Mason could think of was a comment he made in court while Lowe was still in an orange jump suit being arraigned. He recalled saying, “If you were such a good friend, why did you walk past 25 houses?” and said he turned and walked out the courtroom, noting he was not escorted out.
“Just like any jury, I’ve been on juries before … they tell you not to read the paper, don’t watch TV,” Mason said, adding that sometimes people, while serving on juries, will do just that, and can make assumptions.
Mason is equally upset with statements Howaniec previously made, saying they not only disrespected him and his family, but “made the town look stupid … like a bunch of hillbillies.”
“It’s hard to be told your daughter’s manslaughter case is a dog and pony show,” he said, his voice slightly wavering.
Meanwhile, Howaniec says the appeals process should take between nine and 12 months. The case will be transferred to the Maine Supreme Court Appellate division and the court will look at the written briefs and oral arguments for a mistrial, he said. If it’s determined a mistrial can be granted, then Lowe will be retried on the manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident charges, but not the OUI charges because that would be double jeopardy.
If a mistrial isn’t granted, then Lowe will begin her 18-month sentence but Howaniec says his client might only serve a year in jail—at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, which is a minimum to maximum security facility—and said she could be out after a few months on work release.
Mason thinks the reason Howaniec has filed the appeal is so Lowe can stay out of jail longer and spend time with her one-year-old daughter. After the accident, she moved to Virginia for six months, started a relationship and became pregnant. He doesn’t believe the prosecution should have allowed her to leave the state and said having a child was Lowe’s way of trying to cash in on a get of jail free card.
“She’s still out there, she’s going to have Christmas with her kid,” Mason said, adding that the worst part for him will be when he sits down for Thanksgiving this year, and will again have to look at his daughter’s empty plate.
“It’s wrong that she’s not here. It’s even more wrong that justice is not being served,” he said about Rebecca.
Since the appeals process is expected to last for up to another year, Mason has mostly put his education efforts on the dangers of texting while driving on hold since there are legal issues and he doesn’t want to compromise the outcome of the case. He began working with a group called Every Person Matters that wanted to bring to high school winter carnivals an educational ride in which students would drive through cones with a golf cart while texting, and Rebecca’s story would be told. He also has put off speaking to a number of driver education classes for the time being.
Though his activism activity is temporarily paused, Mason, with the help of local and national politicians across the aisle, was previously able to toughen texting while driving laws and sentences in Maine following Rebecca’s death.