Giving his instructions to the jurors trying Christina Peele last week, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Stanley Klein told them the defendant is presumed not guilty.
"Suspicion or probability of guilt is not enough for a conviction," he said. "You are the judges of the facts, the credibility of the witnesses and the weight of the evidence."
To convict Peele of aggravated involuntary manslaughter in the April 1, 2006, death of Rawand Hirezi, said Klein, the commonwealth had to prove, "beyond a reasonable doubt," that:
* Peele was driving the car;
* She was under the influence of a drug, which impaired her ability to safely operate a motor vehicle;
* She unintentionally caused Hirezi's death; and
Peele's behavior was so "gross, wanton and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life."
IN HER CLOSING statement, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Kelly Pearson summed up the facts of the case, said Peele's speech was slurred when the state trooper asked her to count for him after the accident and noted Peele's "nonchalant attitude when told she'd killed someone."
Furthermore, said Pearson, "[Peele] told the police officer she was going to live in Canada. She was never planning to come back and face the music for what she did."
Pearson reminded the jurors of "all the other lives [Peele] put in danger for those 3.1 miles" and said the defendant stopped twice on I-66 before leaving the shoulder and accelerating eastward, against traffic, directly toward the group of cars driving west.
"When you put your foot on the gas and head down the highway, you mean those actions — and the defendant did," she said. "Convict her of aggravated involuntary manslaughter."
MENTIONING PRINCESS DIANA'S motor-vehicle death and alluding to celebrity Anna Nicole Smith, defense attorney David Downes said, "Bad things happen to good people."
Saying it's "human nature to justify, to vilify, to find fault and strike out," he called Hirezi's death a "senseless, tragic event" that couldn't be undone by waving a wand. Said Downes: "Auto accidents aren't unusual, but that doesn't make it criminal."
He said Peele asked at the hospital afterward if anyone was hurt or killed. And while admitting his client exercised "bad judgment" afterward by making a "run for the border," Downes reiterated that no field sobriety test was done.
He told the jury, "If you don't think [she] was under the influence, then you have to find her not guilty — and this is nothing more than another auto accident that happens every day."
But, said Pearson in her rebuttal, "This death could have been avoided, should have been and wasn't."
After 3 1/2 hours of deliberation, the jury returned Wednesday, March 28, at 11:30 a.m., and found Peele guilty as charged. The verdict was unanimous and, this time, it was Peele who cried.
Then, for the first time, Pearson was able to tell the jury about the defendant's three prior felony convictions for grand larceny, distribution of a controlled substance and possession of marijuana. Next — before the jury deliberated on what Peele's possible punishment should be — three members of Hirezi's family told how her death had affected them.
HIREZI'S AUNT, Vivian Daniel, said she was just 5 years older than her niece, so Hirezi was more like her sister or best friend. "We confided in one another and she was a beautiful, loving, caring, human being — an inspiration to others," said Daniel.
She said Hirezi loved to sing, had a passion for helping children and was one month away from graduating from GMU with a criminal-justice degree. "Her death was an emotional earthquake that left us shattered beyond repair," said Daniel. "She was robbed of her college-graduation day, motherhood and her life."
"Comparing her loss to the loss of a dog was a disrespect and is not the same as the loss of a human being," she continued. "There's not one moment I don't think about Rawand, and I'll always have a scar in my heart that will never go away."
Hirezi's younger brother, Gabi, 23, cried as he told the court, "Because of this unnecessary, tragic murder, my one and only sibling has been taken away from me. She wanted to have a big family with many children; now, I'll never be an uncle to them. All I have are memories and pictures; unfortunately, I cannot solve this problem by fleeing to Canada."
Gabi Hirezi said he was protective of his sister but, now, "it is too late. I'll always wonder why this had to happen. This has shaken my soul." Addressing Peele, he said, "At least in jail, you'll get to visit your family and friends; I can only visit a grave."
Next, Manuel Hirezi said how proud and honored he was to be Rawand's father. He spoke of her "unconditional love" for others and how she'd worked so hard at GMU to be successful.
"I miss her calling me three times a day, just to say, 'How are you doing? I love you, Daddy,'" he said. "She never missed a day. And on anniversaries and birthdays, we'd come home and see balloons from her everywhere."
Referring to Peele, Manuel Hirezi spoke of "the lack of responsibility of this selfish woman, disregarding my daughter's and others' lives — she could have killed two or three other people. Look around the room; this is my family — they came from Florida and Louisiana — and friends. Everybody came here because Rawand gave them nothing but love."
THEN PEELE, who has two daughters, 5 and 1, took the stand and, sobbing, said, "I'm sorry this happened. I didn't do it on purpose. Everybody's in pain. I swear, I'm sorry. I don't know what to say; nothing I can say will change it."
Before the jury left to consider her punishment, Pearson said, "This defendant said she didn't do it on purpose, but that's incorrect. She made that decision [to drive while high] and when you do, you have to take the responsibility for your actions."
Pearson also said that Peele will see her children again, but the Hirezis' daughter is gone forever. "When you fashion a sentence, I hope you take into account all the hopes and dreams this beautiful, young woman had and never got to accomplish," said the prosecutor. "I am asking for a significant sentence."
Downes said Peele's younger child will soon be taking her first steps and the older one will enter kindergarten in the fall. "My client's made mistakes — who hasn't?" he asked the jurors. "I hope you'll find it in your hearts to forgive her."
After deliberating nearly two hours, the jury recommended that Peele serve 15 years in prison. Sentencing will be June 15. Afterward, Gabi Hirezi said Peele should have received 20 years — the maximum penalty for her offense. "But that's what the jury decided is fair," he said.
Jon Phillips, Peele's fiancé and father of her two girls, said Peele also lost a family member when her brother, 27, died this past Thanksgiving day. Regarding the verdict, he said, "Other than a knack for getting into trouble, she was a very good mother, so this is a loss for the children, as well."
Nonetheless, said Rawand Hirezi's longtime friend, Jessica Sabatino, "[Peele] has to live with herself. Words can't describe how much she's hurt Rawand's family and friends. Thirty years from now, they'll still be hurting."