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Prosecution, defense face off before King trial begins

By MARY BROWNFIELD

Published: January 28, 2011

THE DEATH of Joel Woods in front of Pacific Grove Middle School in September 2008 was a tragic accident caused by properly used prescription painkillers, not a crime, according to a public defender representing Deborah King, the driver of the BMW SUV that struck Woods as he was picking up his son from school.

The attorney, Heather Rogers, is so adamant about the point that she doesn’t even want Woods referred to as a “victim” in front of the jury as King is tried for murdering him by driving under the influence.

The verbal question was one of many argued by Rogers and prosecutor Steve Somers in front of Monterey County Superior Court Judge Russell Scott Monday.

They sought rulings from Scott on everything from whether King’s prison time for multiple DUI convictions could be raised during testimony, to whether witnesses could use the words, “reckless” and “impaired,” not to mention “victim.”

King, who was arrested shortly after the fatal accident more than two years ago but then spent several months in a mental institution after she was declared unfit to stand trial, appeared in court Jan. 24 in civilian clothes with shackles on her wrists and ankles that were later removed so she could sit comfortably. Her attorney claims she suffers from chronic pain due to injuries originating from an attempted rape when she was a prison guard many years ago.

Regardless, Somers plans to prove King was addicted to painkillers and other drugs — including those that allegedly impaired her driving so badly that she hit and killed Woods with her SUV. He also alleges her five DUI convictions in Kern County in the 1990s, the last of which resulted in a two-year prison term after she was convicted twice in 1998, should have made her acutely aware of the fact that driving under the influence could have disastrous consequences. That “implied malice” is necessary for a murder conviction.

“Nothing more could be done to educate someone of the dangers of what she was doing,” he said. “Despite that knowledge, despite that history, she did it again — and did kill someone.”

But Rogers said King’s prior DUIs were for drinking alcohol, and therefore not relevant to the latest charge.

“What’s really striking around this case are the circumstances we have today, versus a decade ago,” she said. When King hit and killed Woods outside Pacific Grove Middle School around lunchtime Sept. 2, 2008, she was not drunk and had only taken medications in the amounts prescribed by her doctor, according to Rogers.

Therefore, the old convictions and prison time are “extremely, extremely remote and would be extremely, extremely prejudicial.”

She also said serving time for drinking and driving would not have taught King that driving while taking prescription medications was dangerous.

“Do you dispute the DA’s allegations that she abused these medications?” Scott asked Rogers.

“I absolutely dispute them,” she responded.

But Somers said King could not be defended as being someone who was merely doing what her physician ordered. “It’s a fallacious argument to say that working with a doctor who is telling her what to take absolves her in this case,” he said, because King never told her doctor she had a history of addiction to alcohol and drugs.

He also claimed King once faked an ankle injury — going as far as using black and blue paint to create a “bruise” — in order to get painkillers. He plans to call King’s former husband, to testify about the incident. “No one could paint black and blue on her ankle and not know she has an addiction,” Somers said.

But Rogers wanted the judge to disallow testimony from the man, who was divorced from King 13 years ago, saying he is vindictive, hates King and will do anything within his power to hurt her, including lying in court.

Scott said he would rule on the issues as they arise during the trial.

Rogers also tried some novel strategies, including asking the judge to prevent prosecutors and witnesses from referring to Woods as a “victim” in front of the jury, calling the word a “legal conclusion” that could place King in a negative light. She said the death of Woods was accidental, not criminal, and that only a crime could have a victim.

But the judge disagreed. “‘Victim’ is not a legal conclusion — it’s a word people use every day not anywhere near this courthouse,” Scott said. He concluded trying to remove it from witnesses’ vocabulary would be “impossible.”

Rogers also wanted witnesses, including a woman who dialed 911, to be forbidden from using the terms, “impaired,” and “reckless” when testifying against King.

But the judge denied that request, agreeing with the prosecutor that “reckless,” is merely descriptive. He similarly denied Rogers’ request to keep “impaired” out of the testimony.

The defense attorney also doesn’t want the jury to hear about an interview conducted by P.G. detectives at King’s home after the accident, because she claimed the officers coerced King and continued to question her after telling her Woods was dead.

Scott said he would read the transcript and rule on its admissibility later.

Opening arguments could take place as early as Friday. The trial expected to last three weeks.