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Jury deadlocked on murder charge in Santa Rosa road-rage trial

  • Heather Howell appears in Sonoma County Superior Court with her defense attorney Steve Spiegelman in Santa Rosa, on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/ PD)

Jurors split Thursday over whether to convict a Santa Rosa woman of second-degree murder in a road-rage death that occurred as she chased her boyfriend, drunk, through traffic, killing another motorist.

But the panel found Heather Anne Howell, 30, guilty of two other charges — reckless driving with great bodily injury and gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated — setting her up for a possible 10-year prison term.

The verdicts came after jurors were directed twice by Judge Robert LaForge to continue deliberations on the murder charge in hopes they would reach a unanimous decision.

Hall Road Fatal Road Rage Case

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But the panel remained deadlocked 9-3 in favor of conviction, and LaForge finally declared a mistrial.

Prosecutors still could seek to retry Howell on the second-degree murder charge, which carries a 15-to-life prison sentence.

Howell was on trial for the July 2012 death of Jesse Garcia, 56, of Santa Rosa. Prosecutors said Howell struck his Triumph sports car on Hall Road while she was engaged in a high-speed pursuit of her boyfriend, who was riding his motorcycle.

Investigators said Howell was driving around other cars to catch up with the motorcycle when she sideswiped a Lexus and then rear-ended the TR-6 convertible, causing it to spin, roll and burst into flames, with Garcia inside.

Toxicology reports showed Howell had a .11 percent blood-alcohol level and had cocaine and marijuana in her system.

She was charged with murder under two separate theories, including that she knew drunken driving was dangerous but did it anyway — despite a 2006 drunken-driving conviction that included a judge's warning that she could be charged with murder if she ever drove drunk again and caused a fatality.

Two jurors who agreed to be interviewed said the jury was about equally divided on all three charges when deliberations began Monday but quickly reached consensus on two of the three counts against Howell.

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