By Novpreet Shoker
The jury trial for defendant Thomas Phillip Leae came to an end this past Friday, as the jury found the defendant guilty on all three counts of murder in the second degree, evading a peace officer, and unlawfully taking and driving a vehicle.
The defendant has been in the custody of Yolo County since the initial incident which dates to November 30, 2015.
Leae is originally from Vancouver, Washington. The defendant ended up in Northern California after fleeing in a stolen vehicle with an 18-year-old woman, both being persons of interest in a homicide in Vancouver.
The defendant was eventually found by California Highway Patrol, but chose to evade officers through a high-speed chase off of Interstate 5. In efforts to lose the police, Leae got off the freeway,
turned around, and began traveling northbound in the southbound lane.
Soon enough, Leae lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a eucalyptus tree, resulting in the death of his passenger.
The trial began Friday morning with Deputy District Attorney Deanna Hays bringing in a Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT) member, CHP Officer Darrell Nishimi. The witness explained his role as a part of a specialized unit in the CHP.
As an accident reconstruct and investigation expert, Officer Nishimi testified that he and his team were called to the site of an accident by Woodland CHP around 1 a.m. the night of the 30th.
Officer Nishimi explained that he and his team documented the scene of the collision using photographs and drawings, which was accomplished through the use of a total station theodolite (TST, an electronic/optical instrument for surveying or construction).
The witness then referred to a drawing of the exit ramp off I-5, where Leae crashed. Through their survey equipment, MAIT was able to gain documentation of the scene, as well as collect the physical evidence found there.
This physical evidence included two sets of tire friction marks on the northbound on-ramp lane, three sets of tire furrows in the grass where the vehicle slid, the eucalyptus tree that was damaged by the vehicle crashing into it face first, and the debris left behind by the vehicle.
Deputy DA Hays then showed Officer Nishimi various photos of this physical evidence as he explained certain details about them.
Officer Nishimi pointed out that, once the vehicle began to skid, its path was straight all the way to the tree and that it did not turn or bend. He also explained that the vehicle was found away from the tree, turned 90 degrees counterclockwise due to what is called restitution (regarding the ratio of the relative speed after a collision between two objects, to the relative speed before), where there is so much force in one direction that the vehicle is pushed back after the initial hit.
Ms. Hays asked the witness about the approximate speed of the vehicle when the defendant began braking. Officer Nishimi answered that, through an energy-based analysis, he learned that it was 82 mph.
DDA Hays then asked what the approximate speed was when the vehicle reached the tree, and the witness answered 66 mph.
Deputy Public Defender John Sage began his cross-examination of the witness by asking about the vehicle’s brakes. The vehicle, being a 1999 silver Honda Accord, had drum brakes which indicates that the front wheels were locked as the vehicle slid.
Mr. Sage then pointed out that, because the vehicle’s front end was more susceptible to going down, due to a shift in weight, the driver’s steering would make no difference. Officer Nishimi agreed.
Mr. Sage also claimed that the vehicle’s black box, which is the airbag control module, could have given a possible answer for the actual speed that the vehicle was traveling.
The witness disagreed because the black box was not accessible, as the vehicle was too old and, because of that, he had had to resort to a manual analysis.
During redirect, Ms. Hays asked Officer Nishimi if, in his opinion, the vehicle’s black box would be more accurate than his calculation when it came to figuring out the vehicle’s speed. The witness answered that older cars have less information, and so his calculation was the better option.
Officer Nishimi then made it clear to the jury that in his analysis he used a certain value for the coefficient of friction, which would result in the 82 mph being the low end of the estimation.
Judge David Reed then excused the witness.
This concluded the evidence for the case, so both sides of counsel went into their closing statements.
Before they began, Judge Reed disclosed to the jury a stipulation that both sides of counsel agreed to. The stipulation detailed how the defendant had been previously convicted of attempting to elude an officer in Kings County, Washington.
Ms. Hays began her closing statement by stating that “the facts [of this case] are pretty straightforward.”
In her closing, Ms. Hays went step by step through the charges made against the defendant.
For count three, she stated that not only was the car reported stolen, but the registered owner came in, as well, as a witness to testify that Leae did not have permission to take the vehicle.
For count two, the CHP was actively pursuing the defendant, and although he was aware of it, Leae continued to speed away, and eventually that resulted in someone’s death. The CHP was also self-identified in a marked vehicle and uniform.
For count one, Ms. Hays simply stated that Leae’s actions caused another person’s death.
This charge must include an element of malice aforethought, in which the defendant’s state of mind before the incident had implied malice. Leae intentionally committed an act, and the natural consequence was the loss of a human life.
DDA Hays remained adamant that Leae knew his actions were dangerous and that “acts easily interpret someone’s intent.”
It was also brought to the jury’s attention that they may refer to Leae’s prior convictions from 2013.
As Ms. Hays was concluding that Leae did not care for anybody’s safety or survival, the defendant interrupted her.
Leae spoke out saying, “Yes, I did. Yes, I did.”
Despite the rise of tension inside the courtroom, DDA Hays continued telling the jury that she had proved her case beyond reasonable doubt.
Mr. Sage started his closing statements by addressing certain details that Ms. Hays mentioned in her statement.
Firstly, Mr. Sage pointed out that the witness brought in to testify about her stolen vehicle was not the actual user of the vehicle. The witness bought the car for her son, who did not testify, so there is no sure way to know if the vehicle was actually taken by or given to Leae.
The defense attorney went a step further to suggest that it is possible the son wanted to get rid of his car because he may have been the one to take part in the homicide in which Leae is a person of interest. Mr. Sage claims this is possible because the son is, like Leae, also African American.
Mr. Sage went on to address the 18-year-old woman who died in the crash. He explained that everything Leae did was to save her.
Then, Mr. Sage claimed that 82 mph did not “seem to be inherently dangerous.”
According to him, the skid marks indicated that Leae did not act with conscious disregard and instead was trying to stop the vehicle.
Mr. Sage also explained that a large kitchen knife was found near the passenger, and went on to leave an open-ended insinuation by saying that “you can love someone and be afraid of someone at the same time.”
In her rebuttal, Ms. Hays attacked Mr. Sage’s implication that Leae was scared of the young woman. She stated clearly that “Mr. Leae is not the victim here.”
She went on to say that the jury should focus on his “dangerous choices,” and that “his love for her, whether it’s there or not, is completely irrelevant.”
Judge Reed proceeded to read to the jury the instructions for deliberations.
That very afternoon the jury returned a verdict of guilty on all charges held against Leae.
Thomas Leae Found Guilty of Second-Degree Murder in Connection to 2015 Car Chase
By Taite Trautwein
Thomas Leae was found guilty of three charges Thursday afternoon, the most severe of which saw the Washington native guilty of second degree murder. Leae and a passenger led California Highway Patrol officers on a chase through Yolo County on November 30, 2015, which resulted in the death of his passenger.
In addition to the murder charge, Leae was also found guilty of evading a police officer, causing death, as well as unlawfully taking or driving a vehicle. Leae and his girlfriend, the passenger of the vehicle, fled Washington state following their alleged involvement in the death of a pawn shop clerk in Vancouver, Washington. The 1999 Honda Accord they were driving was reported stolen by their Washington neighbors they day after it was taken.
It took the threat of deputy involvement to convince Leae to stand up from his seat to hear the verdict. Leae’s trial had previously been postponed due to his refusal to speak, getting him deemed mentally unfit to stand trial.
In her closing statements before Judge David W. Reed, Deputy District Attorney Deanna Hays stressed that Leae was well aware of the potential consequences his actions had on the night of the fatal crash. “He didn’t care if someone died,” she said as she addressed the jury. “He knew his conduct was dangerous.” Hays also called attention back to a previous charge Leae had for refusing to stop for an officer, an act he committed while living in Washington, as proof that Leae knew what he was doing was putting lives at risk.
Deputy Public Defender John Sage challenged the second-degree murder charge, questioning whether Leae had engaged in “conscious indifference to the consequences.” Sage argued that Leae was more worried about protecting his girlfriend from police officers, which he claimed actually showed a deep concern for human life. The deputy PD stressed that there was no malice in Leae’s act, he was simply looking out for someone he loved. In the end, it was not enough to sway the jury.
Upon their first return to the courtroom, the jury was split 11 to 1, but following another round of statements from both the prosecution and defense, the jury was able to achieve a consensus. DDA Hays urged that every car which passed Leae on the highway was a warning sign to him of the consequences of his actions, stating he had the opportunity to end the chase, but he never took it.
Previous witness testimony detailed Leae driving down the wrong side of the highway with his lights off at speeds of up to 100 mph. Officer Timothy Lovato, one of three CHP officers involved in the pursuit, spoke of shining a spotlight on the fleeing vehicle in order to warn oncoming traffic of its presence. Eventually, Leae attempted to go up the on-ramp of a Dunnigan rest stop and collided with a tree.
Expert witness Darrell Nishimi, a member of the CHP’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team, calculated that the car would have been traveling approximately 82 mph when it entered the on-ramp and approximately 66 mph when it collided with the tree. Photos displayed in the courtroom saw the vehicle’s front end completely smashed in with its air bags deployed. In addition, the front tire was shown with worn-down tread, a trait usually associated with the type of hard braking Officer Nishimi claimed one would expect in this type of accident.
Leae left the courtroom immediately after the verdict was read, tearing out his ponytail tie.
The sentencing hearing is currently scheduled to take place on November 6 at 9 a.m. within Department 8 of Yolo County Superior Court.