By Jenean Docter
The closing arguments for the case of Larra Williams—accused of driving under the influence of both methamphetamine and alcohol in July 2016—were delivered in Department 14, on the morning of February 1, 2018. The Honorable David Rosenberg presided over the matter.
The deputy public defender representing Williams, Jonathan Opet, delivered an impassioned argument intended to discredit the People’s allegations.
Opet implored the jury to consider all possible interpretations of the evidence at hand, and noted that “it’s easy to have suspicion, but that’s not beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Mr. Opet also noted that “a defendant has an absolute constitutional right not to testify,” and that William’s decision not to testify must not be held against her.
Opet asserted that the prosecution’s case against Williams is “ruled out by facts,” and argued that had Williams been under the influence of alcohol and/or methamphetamine, she would have displayed certain clear physiological effects. Notably, Williams did not have dilated pupils, was not sweating, was not grinding her teeth, and was not looking around rapidly—all textbook indicators of methamphetamine. These effects typically last four to eight hours after initial use. Such an interpretation of the evidence, according to the defense, verifies Williams’s testimony that she had used methamphetamine, but not within the previous 24 hours.
Furthermore, no evidence of recent methamphetamine usage—such as a pipe, a syringe, or the drug itself—were found in her vehicle. According to the defense, if Williams had been under the effects of methamphetamine at the time of the traffic stop (roughly 10:00 AM), she would have had the drug in her car.
Opet categorized the prosecution’s theory that Williams had ingested alcohol in order to counteract the effects of methamphetamine—to reduce her heart rate and stop her pupils from dilating, for example—as purely “unscientific.” Based on retrograde calculations, William’s BAC (blood alcohol content) ranged from 0.04 to 0.06 at the time of driving. Although some individuals are impaired at 0.06, not everyone is—hence, the establishment of the legal limit at 0.08. In the video of the traffic stop, Williams did not exhibit any slurred speech or lethargy. Rather, she displayed good balance and coordination when standing and moving. The police officer who arrested her was likely worried about methamphetamine use, not alcohol.
“[To the prosecution] everything was impairment…they just want to cherry pick the small errors someone makes when under stressful conditions,” Opet said of the prosecution’s adamant claim against Williams. Additionally, he noted that the expert witnesses called by the People did not watch the traffic stop video—a facet of the prosecution’s investigation he regarded as “very troubling.” Instead, the witnesses only utilized information garnered from the police reports. Such a strategy undermines the opinion of expert witnesses Cook and Palacek. “Is that the work of somebody really trying to get to the truth?” Opet asked the jury.
By contrast, Mr. Zender, the expert witness called by the defense, watched the entirety of the video. He was consequently unable to determine with certainty whether or not Williams was impaired at the time of the traffic stop.
Opet claimed that “this was a rough morning for Ms. Williams, but she was not feeling the effects of alcohol or methamphetamine.”
The deputy public defender ended his argument by pleading that the jury “faithfully apply the law to Ms. Williams as you would to your best friend, because the legal system should treat everyone the same”—a plea that rings particularly strong when posed within the context of a county accused of unfairly and disproportionately prosecuting minorities and impoverished community members.
The People, represented by Deputy DA Alex Kian, reinforced the claims made by Cook and Palacek, while seeking to discredit Zender.
Kian noted that Palacek is a Department of Justice specialist trained and certified to collect blood and test for alcohol impairment. He argued that impairment begins at a BAC of 0.01, although most people would only begin to feel it around 0.05. According to the People, the results divulged by a retrograde calculation revealed a decline in Williams’s BAC—suggesting that her BAC would have been near a 0.06 at the time of the traffic stop.
Kian claimed that Cook was called because she tested Williams’ blood for methamphetamine, and was an expert in polydrug use. According to her testimony, individuals impaired by central nervous system (CNS) stimulants, such as methamphetamine, may use CNS depressants, such as alcohol, in order to “come down from a high.”
Kian brushed over Williams’s lack of pupil dilation and urged the jury to “look at the rest of the picture,” a course of action he praises Palacek and Cook for adopting.
Furthermore, the People doubted the validity of Zender’s testimony. “There were certain things that I thought were odd [about Zender and his claims],” Kian declared. He continued to attack Opet’s final statements, asserting to the jury, “If field sobriety tests are not used to determine impairment, then they’re useless.
“Zender didn’t like the word impairment,” Kian claimed. The People additionally noted that Zender did not testify regarding polydrug use. Furthermore, Kian noted that Zender reasoned he would expect to see low meth levels and high amphetamine levels in Williams’s blood, assuming that her statements were true. Yet, the information disclosed within the results of the blood test conducted on Williams at the police station indicate the opposite.
In addition, Kian sought to entirely discredit Zender’s testimony, mentioning that Zender has testified on over 2,000 occasions for the defense between the present and the 1970s. According to the People, Zender earned between $140 and $200 per hour for his testimony.
Furthermore, Kian argued that “the idea that the defendant was stressed at the time of the stop” was speculative. The People disparaged Zender for claiming to make notes on important details, yet recording barking dogs and omitting William’s laughter.
The People stressed that Williams skipped and repeated numbers during the field sobriety tests, revealing “her inability to multitask and follow directions.” In addition, they alleged that she misstated her thoughts (such as saying, “You shouldn’t have alcohol when you drink”), and demonstrated judgment issues.
Kian argued that Williams’ allegedly fumbled words, overuse of her arms and hands when speaking, high blood pressure and rapid resting heart rate indicated methamphetamine use. According to him, the drug began to wear off around 11:30 AM. He claimed that the bodies of some polydrug users adopt a mixture of symptoms, rather than all of them.
“While it’s certainly possible that the defendant would be sober and perform poorly on the field sobriety tests, it’s not necessarily reasonable,” the People remarked. Kian claimed that because Williams initially lied about consuming any alcohol, it’s “certainly reasonable” that she used methamphetamine within four to eight hours of the traffic stop. “We can’t rely on her statements for what the truth is about what she actually consumed,” he argued.
Responding to Opet’s doubts toward the universal validity of field sobriety tests, Kian belligerently stated that “right now, the state of how things are done is that officers use FSTs,” and he described Williams as “waiting for a crash.” The People continued to attack the defense’s argument, describing Opet’s claims as “everything but the kitchen sink”—an incongruous reference to the hoarding of metal by Allied nations during WWII. Kian took care to fully explain. He accused the defense of “pigeon-holing facts,” and asked the jury : “does it quack like a duck, walk like a duck—is it a duck?”
After the previous round of bizarrely-worded arguments, Kian stated that “the only reasonable conclusion” was to find Williams guilty of driving under the influence of methamphetamine and alcohol.
The jury began deliberating regarding the opposing claims on the afternoon on February 1, and will continue on Monday, February 5.