Bart Griffin walked away in silence the day a Travis County jury recommended a sentence of 10 years’ probation for former legislative aide Gabrielle Nestande, the woman who struck and killed his daughter with her car and left the scene.
The verdict left Griffin shocked and without closure, he told a cluster of reporters Thursday in the living room of his Buda home, speaking publicly for the first time since the end of the closely watched trial last week. But his fight to toughen penalties for hit-and-run drivers is far from over, he said.
Nestande struck Courtney Griffin with her black BMW while Griffin was walking home overnight in May 2011. The 30-year-old nanny and veterinarian technician was found dead hours later in the driveway of a nearby Tarrytown home in West Austin. Nestande will be formally sentenced this month.
After Griffin’s death, her father and others have joined the growing widespread support for state legislation that would increase the penalty for drivers who leave the scene of a fatal wreck. Lawmakers, law enforcement officials and the families of victims hope the proposed laws will encourage drivers to stop and offer help — and more severely punish those who don’t.
At least three bills filed this session at the state Capitol seek to elevate a charge of “failure to stop and render aid” in the case of a death from a third-degree felony, with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, to a second-degree felony, which carries a penalty of up to 20 years behind bars.
That would make the possible punishment for the offense the same as intoxication manslaughter. As the laws stand now, a drunken driver who strikes someone with a car could face a lesser sentence by fleeing the scene to sober up.
Drivers could rationalize leaving those in need, Austin police Cmdr. Donald Baker said, thinking “if you’re drunk and you hit somebody, you’re probably better off to run and flee the scene.”
“We want to close the loophole,” he said.
State lawmakers say legislation tackling the law has drawn bipartisan support. Democratic state Sens. Kirk Watson and Wendy Davis have introduced such a bill in the Senate. An identical bill was filed in the House, with Republican Reps. Allen Fletcher, Dennis Bonnen and Phil King among its authors. A third bill filed in the House also would include hit-and-run collisions resulting in serious injuries.
Davis said that lawmakers and staffers at the Capitol, where Nestande worked as an aide, are aware of the attention the failure to stop and render aid charge has garnered after Griffin’s death.But Davis said the problem is larger than any one case — the question is whether the penalty rises to the level it should, she said.
Still, it was Griffin’s father, among others, who approached Watson to carry the legislation. If a driver hits another person, there should be an incentive for them to stay and help, Watson said.
Law enforcement officials say police agencies statewide are seeing an increasing number of hit-and-run incidents. Baker said authorities suspect that many of the people who don’t stick around are intoxicated.
The Texas Major City Chiefs Police Association and the Texas Police Chiefs Association have listed increasing the punishment for failing to stop and render aid in cases of death among their seven proposals for this year’s legislative session.
James McLaughlin, executive director of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, said evidence showing the rise in serious hit-and-runs is only anecdotal, but comes from agencies across the state.
Over the past five years, the number of failure to stop and render aid cases resolved in Travis County courts has mostly gone up. After steadily climbing from 64 in fiscal 2008 to 115 in 2011, only 95 cases were resolved in county courts in 2012.
The number of fatal crashes in which someone failed to stop and render aid also has varied in Austin over the past five calendar years, with a high of 15 incidents in 2008 and a low of five in 2010, according to data from Austin police. So far this year there have been two such incidents. Two men died within days of each other last month after they were hit by unknown vehicles on the Interstate 35 service road, according to the department.
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo has vowed the department would vigorously pursue a higher penalty for people who don’t stop to help their victims.
Following the Nestande verdict, Acevedo issued a statement saying he was deeply disappointed with the jury for handing down “woefully minor consequences” in the case.
But the fight to change the law started long before Courtney Griffin’s death. When her family started seeking harsher sentences for hit-and-run offenders, Griffin’s father said they found support from families of other victims in similar cases.
“A lot of people in our community are going through the same thing right now,” he said Thursday. “Now more than ever, I am behind this legislation.”
Austin attorney David Courreges lost one of his former classmates at St. Mary’s Law School, Sarah Thompson, when a drunken driver hit her as she was walking home in San Antonio from a party with friends in 2006. The motorist didn’t stop.
Courreges said he has made it his mission ever since to toughen the penalties, lobbying for the Sarah Kathryn Thompson Act, which was passed in 2007. That legislation upgraded the failure to stop and render aid charge in cases where victims are seriously injured from a Class A misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to a year in county jail, to a third-degree felony.
Now, like the Griffins, Courreges has been lobbying for the bills proposed this session. In the wake of Nestande’s trial, he also wants to draft a proposal for another bill that would enable jurors to convict fleeing drivers of failure to stop and render aid if the motorist was involved in a wreck in which there was any possibility that a pedestrian was involved.
As the law reads now, to prove failure to stop and render aid, Courreges said, a defendant must admit to knowing they hit a person and prosecutors must have evidence of it, such as other witnesses or surveillance video.
The law “is not written with the clarity and simplicity you would like to see in a penal code provision,” said former Travis County District Judge Mike Lynch, who also suggested lawmakers should consider overhauling the offense.
Nestande testified that she had been drinking the night of the wreck, that she had been checking her phone while driving and that it was her fault Courtney Griffin died. But Nestande said she didn’t know she hit a pedestrian.
On Thursday, which was Courtney Griffin’s birthday, her father told reporters that her family will get past the tragedy. He hopes Nestande is haunted by his daughter’s death every day of her life, he said.
“This has always been about justice for Courtney,” he said.
Fatal crashes in which someone failed to stop and render aid in Austin in the past five calendar years:
• 2012: 12
• 2011: 8
• 2010: 5
• 2009: 9
• 2008: 15
Source: Austin Police Department
Failure to stop and render aid cases resolved in Travis County courts in the past five fiscal years:
• 2012: 95
• 2011: 115
• 2010: 108
• 2009: 69
• 2008: 64
Source: Travis County Office of Court Administration