The crash that killed Ruth Guenther last February was the last of "a series of escalating acts" by Kalen Jeffrey Painter that demonstrated the Warrenton man's indifference to the impact his intoxicated driving might have on others, a Clatsop County Circuit Court jury was told Thursday.
Painter is charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter and driving under the influence of intoxicants in connection with the death of Guenther, who was killed Feb. 13 when Painter's vehicle crossed the center line and slammed head-on into hers on Oregon Highway 202 just south of Astoria. His trial, before Judge Paula Brownhill, began Wednesday.
District Attorney Josh Marquis told the 12-person jury in his opening statement Thursday morning that Painter has a string of acts, including a minor in possession charge, a hit-and-run collision and two prior driving-under-the-influence-of-intoxicants arrests, on his record that show his reckless attitude to drinking and driving.
In his brief opening statement, defense attorney Bruce Tarbox said of Painter that "he alone is responsible for Mrs. Guenther's death, there is no question that he is responsible," but added that the evidence would not point to the first-degree manslaughter conviction that the prosecution seeks.
After the opening statements, the jury was taken to view the crash scene, as well as the two vehicles.
Marquis said he intended to call 30 witnesses, including police involved in the prior DUII arrests. The defense planned to call a single witness, a toxicology expert.
The charges against Painter include two DUII counts stemming from arrests in April and May 2002. Marquis told the jurors to "take that information and put it in your back pocket" for consideration later when they take up the vital question of whether Painter showed "extreme indifference to the value of human life" the day of the crash, a necessary finding for the first-degree manslaughter charge.
"The question is whether these actions add up to a situation where Mr. Painter was driving, in an SUV weighing in excess of 4,000 pounds, driving down the road in such a way it essentially made it a weapon," he said.
If convicted of first-degree manslaughter, Painter faces a minimum of 10 years in prison.
The first of the DUII incidents, Marquis said, occurred in Warrenton in April 2002 when Painter was pulled over by a Clatsop County Sheriff's deputy after failing to use his turn signals. After detecting the smell of liquor on his breath and hearing his slurred speech, the deputy brought Painter to the Clatsop County Jail, where a breath-test measured his blood-alcohol level at .10 percent, above the legal limit. A marijuana pipe was also found in his car.
The second arrest followed a confrontation Painter had with workers a month later at the Old Youngs Bay Bridge, which was closed for repairs, Marquis said. After driving past some barriers erected to keep cars off the bridge, Painter was stopped by a worker and told the bridge was closed. He then drove forward, striking the man but not injuring him. After police responded to the scene, Painter, who workers had described as "stuporous," claimed he was taking Vicodin, a prescription painkiller.
Marquis said he also planned to introduce evidence about an incident in March 2002 in which Painter knocked over three mailboxes that were anchored into the ground and then drove away from the scene. Police linked him to the damage because the front license plate of his vehicle was left behind. The hit-and-run charge was later dropped as part of a civil compromise.
A year earlier, Painter was given a citation for minor in possession of alcohol. He entered and successfully completed a diversion program and the charge was later dismissed, but the incident represents "the start of the road" for his reckless attitude toward drinking, Marquis told the jury.
Painter was at the wheel of a 1997 Ford Expedition Feb. 13 when the SUV crossed the center line on Highway 202 and ran head-on into Guenther's 2002 Hyundai. Guenther was killed instantly. Tests run on Painter at Columbia Memorial Hospital, where he was taken for treatment of some abrasions, put his blood-alcohol content at .28 percent, 3 1/2 times the legal limit.
Evidence and witnesses show that the day of the fatal crash Painter had drinks with friends at the Red Lion Inn at about 1 p.m., and two hours later bought a bottle of vodka at a liquor store, Marquis said.
Evidence at the scene and the eyewitness account of another motorist who saw the collision showed that Guenther slammed on her brakes and pulled to the right in an effort to get out of the path of Painter's car, Marquis said. There is no evidence that Painter, who police estimate was driving at least 48 mph, applied his brakes before the collision, he said.
The collision sent Painter's vehicle into nearby Youngs Bay. Painter fought with paramedics trying to retrieve him from the mud, yelled profanities, and said "that bitch shouldn't have been in my way" when told about the other car, Marquis said.