Rawand Hirezi, 23, was asleep in the passenger-side of the car when Christina Peele, then 29, slammed her vehicle into it, killing the Clifton woman instantly.
"She'd gotten high and was driving the wrong way on I-66 with no headlights on," said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Kelly Pearson, during Peele's trial last week in Fairfax County Circuit Court. "The victim's death is a direct result of this defendant's actions."
The jury of five men and seven women agreed with Pearson and found Peele guilty of aggravated involuntary manslaughter. The jurors later recommended Peele be sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The three-day trial, March 26-28, was emotionally draining for the two dozen members of Hirezi's close-knit family who filled all three rows of the courtroom. They cried as a picture showing Hirezi inside the smashed car was projected on a screen for the jury.
THE ACCIDENT occurred in the early morning hours of April 1, 2006, as Hirezi and her boyfriend, Hootan Moeirzadeh — both students at George Mason University — were driving home in a Honda Civic after an evening in Georgetown.
In his opening statement, defense attorney David Downes told the jury the death of a loved one is always sad and he recalled how upset he was as a child when his dog died. He then told the jurors they'd have to determine if his client was under the influence when the accident occurred, if her condition caused Hirezi's death and if Peele's conduct was "so wanton as to show a disregard for human life."
Downes said Peele was "off of her lithium — a drug she's required to take for a debilitating mental illness. But she had just given birth a few weeks before and did not want to contaminate her mother's milk with the medication. We can't undo the death ... and now we have to sort out whether it was a criminal case or something else."
But Pearson said Peele had driven from her home in Front Royal to Washington, D.C., the night of March 31, with her brother, obtained drugs and gotten high. And by deciding to drive in that state, said Pearson, Peele became responsible for the tragedy that followed.
FAIRFAX COUNTY Police Officer Patrick Nolan testified first for the prosecution. On April 1, 2006, just after 2 a.m., he was off duty, driving home on I-66 west in an unmarked police car. Near the Nutley Street exit, he said, "I started seeing brake lights and vehicles slowing down. I realized there was a green, Ford Explorer facing the wrong direction and there must have been an accident."
Nolan said two men were walking on the road — a taxi driver and a man who "appeared unsteady on his feet and then was seated inside the Explorer."
When Nolan asked the Explorer's female driver if there were any injuries, "She didn't respond. She just stared ahead and then drove off eastbound in the westbound lanes." He said he notified the state patrol about her and he identified Peele in court as that driver.
Fairfax resident Stephen Zorio was also driving home then on I-66 west and noticed Peele's SUV traveling eastbound, near the Vienna Metro Station, on his side of the highway. "What was unusual about it?" asked Pearson. "The fact that it was driving on the left shoulder, the wrong way, with its lights off," answered Zorio.
David Wilkes, 24, was driving home from Arlington on I-66 west, ahead of a pack of four to six cars. "About 60 yards ahead of me, on the shoulder, there was an Explorer with its headlights off and parked," he testified. "Then I saw it pull out, against traffic, halfway in the fast lane and halfway in the middle lane."
Wilkes said he swerved to his right and, in his rearview mirror, he saw the Explorer's back end "jump" at the same time he heard an explosion.
"Did you see any brake lights on the Explorer?" asked Pearson.
"No," Wilkes replied. "I got off on the shoulder to see if I could help. Another male and female in another car also stopped and one started to administer CPR through the window."
"I walked up to the Civic," said Wilkes. "The driver had gotten out and was making his way around the back of the car. He appeared to be injured and was screaming out for someone to help the girl in the car. I looked through the back window — which had been busted out — and saw a woman there, leaning to one side."
As he approached the SUV, said Wilkes, a male was lying injured on the ground and didn't answer when Wilkes asked if he was OK. He said a woman wearing a tube top had exited the SUV and also didn't respond when he asked if she was all right. "Her eyes were closed; she was struggling to open them," said Wilkes. "She was moaning and mumbling and holding her chest." He then pointed to Peele in court as the woman he'd seen.
HIREZI'S BOYFRIEND, Hootan Moeirzadeh, 28, said they left Georgetown around 1:45 a.m., and he drove while she slept, lying down with the seat reclined all the way back.
"All of a sudden, I see a car coming my way," he said. "I was shocked; I knew I had to get out of the way. I was in the left lane and thought it would be safer to get in the left shoulder. I only had two seconds to react. If I'd spent time to look in my mirror, I might have hit a car in the right lane and I knew there were no cars on the left shoulder."
After the crash, Moeirzadeh initially thought Hirezi was still sleeping. "I couldn't wake her up," he said. "I was screaming, 'Baby!' and her name. I couldn't walk or stand on my foot. Later on, I learned I had four or five fractures in my right ankle. I was dizzy; next thing I knew, I was in the ambulance." He said the vehicle that struck them was a Ford Explorer.
GMU student James Gattis III was also driving on I-66 west with his girlfriend and saw the passenger sides of the SUV and the Honda collide. "The Civic's bumper went flying toward my car and I swerved around it," he said. "We pulled over on the shoulder by the exit."
When he saw others already helping the Honda's occupants, he and two other people who'd stopped to help pulled Peele's brother out of the SUV. Gattis said Peele was bleeding from a small gash on her forehead. He said she didn't speak or help her rescuers try to get her out of the Explorer.
VIRGINIA STATE Trooper Frederick Richens was on patrol when he received a call about a vehicle traveling the wrong way on I-66 west. As he and other troopers responded around 2:10 a.m., word came of a head-on collision, 3/10 of a mile east of the I-495 overpass.
Richens was in charge of the accident scene and showed the court photos he took of the smashed, mangled Honda. When he said Hirezi was still inside it when he took the pictures, her mother cried.
Out of earshot of the jury, Richens said he asked Peele if she'd had anything that evening that would impair her and she said, "No alcohol." He said he didn't give her a field sobriety test "since she had bruises on her head and face and was mumbling her responses." And he said Peele refused to take a blood test. However, the jury wasn't allowed to hear this information.
When the jurors returned, Richens said Peele had driven 3.1 miles in the wrong direction from the scene of her first accident to the scene of her second.
Dr. Robert Zurowski, a licensed medical examiner, said Hirezi's death was caused by blunt-force, chest trauma. Besides her internal injuries, he said she'd sustained skull and rib fractures.
OFFICER KEVIN BIGGS of the City of Buffalo, N.Y., Police Department, also took the stand and testified that, on May 4, 2006, a month after the accident, he was dispatched to the U.S./Canadian border between Buffalo and Ontario to pick up Peele. Federal customs agents had detained her, and Biggs transported her to the Erie County Holding Center.
He said Peele had her two children with her and told him "she was going to Canada because of a manslaughter charge. She mentioned she should have taken off to Mexico, instead, because it would have been easier to [escape that way]."
The jury then heard parts of Peele's phone conversations from jail to a man. She said she'd gone to the District and gotten high. "I was trying to come home and enjoy my high at the house," said Peele.
She lamented the fact that she hadn't "waited" and then, said, "All their evidence — everything [the police] have is my *#@*#*; I lied."
The prosecution then rested, as did the defense — without introducing any evidence or calling any witnesses.