Was it drunk driving or sleep driving? That is the question a 14-member jury panel will have to decide in the second-degree murder trial of Christopher Smith.
Smith is accused of the 2007 Christmas Eve death of Trang Vo, 34, when he drove the wrong way on Pecos Road for miles, eventually crashing into the van that carried Vo as a passenger.
Smith also is charged with three counts of aggravated assault for the injuries that Kiem Chung, her brother, Nuong Chung and his wife, Tuyet Nguyen, sustained in the same crash. The four were returning home from a Christmas Eve concert when the crash occurred.
Deputy County Attorney Allister Adell told the six-man, eight-women jury panel that Smith had a blood alcohol level of 0.20 – more than twice the legal limit – and that even as vehicles swerved to evade Smith while flashing their lights, he continued until running head-on into the van near the equivalent of 14th Street on Pecos Road.
"He knew the dangers of drinking and driving because he had a previous DUI," Adell told jurors during opening statements Tuesday morning.
Defense attorney Charles K. Shell conceded his client had too much to drink, was driving on the wrong side of the road and that there was a horrific crash.
But he said it could have been due to "sleep driving" caused by too much alcohol.
Shell explained to the jury that Smith had planned to stay with his parents that night near 27th Avenue and Pecos Road, adding that "there is a lot of evidence that Chris was in a semi-conscious state when he went to bed that night."
Shell plans to bring in an expert next week, who can testify about how the effects of alcohol can result in someone doing normal day-to-day type activities while in a sleep state.
Shell spoke briefly during opening statements, ending with a plea for the jurors not to succumb to emotion but to listen to the facts and "make a fair determination."
But the first witnesses were full of emotions.
Marilyn Lauber, an air traffic controller on her way home that night, was driving just behind the van before it was struck by Smith. She started to break down as she described seeing the headlight heading the wrong way on Pecos Road.
"I knew if something didn’t change, this would be bad," testified Lauber.
Another Ahwatukee Foothills resident who knew something bad was about to happen was Scott Giesen, who was returning home with his family when he came head to head with Smith’s car at Desert Foothills Parkway.
Giesen was stopped at the red light when Smith’s car drove up to the signal on the wrong side of the road. They carefully swerved around each other, and Giesen said he did a U-turn and headed east, in the eastbound lanes, trying to follow Smith who was also heading east, but in the westbound lane.
Giesen had emergency medical training and quickly jumped out to begin helping the survivors.
He came across Vo, in the back seat of the van, saw she wasn’t breathing and began doing CPR. She died of blunt force trauma from the crash, officials said.
Smith faces a maximum of 22 years for the second-degree murder charge, but Shell told the jury that he felt his client’s punishment should be far less because of the sleep driving.
The trial will wrap up next week in Maricopa County Superior Court in downtown Phoenix.