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DUI suspect in fatal 2009 wreck goes on trial for murder

The night last November that Lori Phillips killed a man, she was driving so drunk she didn't even brake before crashing into the other car head-on, prosecutor Clinton Campion told an Anchorage jury Monday.

She wasn't supposed to be on the road at all. She had no driver's license, and her bail conditions on an earlier drunken driving charge from March 2009 specified no drinking and no driving, Campion said in his opening statement to Superior Court jurors.

"That night, Lori Phillips was more dangerous than a snowstorm, than black ice or fog," Campion said.

Police were looking for Phillips on Nov. 5, 2009, when her Ford SUV crossed the center line on the Seward Highway at Potter Marsh. Vehicles were pulling over to get out of her way. Then she plowed into a small Toyota sedan driven by Louis Clement, the prosecutor said.

Phillips' blood-alcohol level after the fatal crash measured .328, more than four times the legal limit for driving, Campion said.

Now Phillips, 56, is on trial for second-degree murder in the death of Clement, 23.

And that's the essential question for jurors, defense attorney Rex Butler said when it was his turn to address the jury as the trial opened: Did Phillip's actions amount to murder?

"It's not the usual kind of case," Butler said -- not the typical murder where jurors must determine whether, say, the defendant fired the gun that killed the guy.

Jurors must serve as a check on the power of government, Butler said. "This is not a cut and dried decision."

Phillips also faces a charge of first-degree assault for injuries suffered by Clement's passenger, his fiance Joyua Stovall, as well as charges of drunken driving, reckless driving, and driving without a license. It's her fifth DUI charge since 1983 though she's been convicted of just two. The first one was pleaded down to a traffic offense and two more recent DUI charges are pending.

'OUT OF IT'

The first witness was hair stylist Jessica Olsen, who told jurors that Phillips arrived about 20 minutes late for her 2 p.m. appointment at Hot Heads hair salon that day last November.

"She seemed kind of out of it," Olsen said. Phillips' speech was slurred. She seemed slow. She had a stainless steel coffee mug with her, but Olsen testified she didn't see her drinking or smell any alcohol. Phillips hadn't been in for a haircut in about two years. Another stylist did her cut and perm.

Olsen took over at the end to blow dry Phillips' hair. By then, 2 1/2 hours into the appointment, Phillips could barely talk. Her eyes were crossed and glazed over. She was nodding off, Olsen testified.

"I don't know whether she was drunk. I don't know if she was on pills. But you know she was on something," Olson said under questioning by prosecutor Sharon Marshall.

The salon didn't serve alcohol, Olsen said later, during cross examination by Butler.

Phillips struggled to write out a check for the services. Olsen told her she wasn't in any shape to drive and offered to call a cab. She refused. Olsen, who was Hot Heads owner at the time, followed Phillips outside, thinking she would snatch away the keys, but Phillips punched in the code on the Ford's door.

"I walked over to her and grabbed her arm and tried to get her out of her car," Olsen said. She had known Phillips as a client for 15 years, but she couldn't talk her out of driving.

Phillips told her she needed to get home to her daughter, Whitney. She drove away, Olsen said, nearly hitting another vehicle in the parking lot. At 5:29 p.m., Olsen called 911 to report her as a possible drunken driver. Twenty minutes later, a state Department of Transportation worker near the vehicle weight scales south of Potter Marsh saw the Ford driving erratically and called in another report, according to Campion.

Whitney Phillips had deep-rooted troubles of her own. She was a heroin addict, Butler said. She suffered a drug overdose in the spring, while her mother was in jail, and later died, Anchorage police said. She was 22 and Phillips' only child.

AN EXAMPLE?

In the courtroom Monday were Phillips' mother and brother, who didn't want to give their names, and Stovall's brother and sister, Jamin and Toshianna Stovall. Also watching the trial were Royal and Nancy Bidwell, whose Forget Me Not Foundation wants to "stop the insanity of impaired driving." Nancy's 17-year-old daughter Shelly Reed, a West High senior, was killed by a drunk driver on Minnesota Drive in 1983.

Joyua Stovall, who suffered numerous broken bones and internal injuries in the crash last year, is expected to testify this week against Phillips. She just had another surgery last month but "is making very good progress," Jamin Stovall said.

He said he supports the prosecution on a murder charge. "I think we should make a statement." Alaska needs to be tougher on drunken drivers before they rack up so many charges, before they kill someone, he said.

Another person sitting in on the trial was state Rep. Chris Tuck, a Democrat from Anchorage. His ex-wife, Michelle Myers, who now owns Hot Heads, is another hairdresser scheduled to testify. He came to support her, he said.

But his interest goes beyond that.

Tuck said when he was a boy growing up in Anchorage, his mother was hit by a drunk driver and nearly had to have her legs amputated. She owned a hair salon, which the family had to sell because of her injuries, he said. The family was forever changed, he said.

When Tuck left the courtroom Monday, he asked his staff to research legislation to better tackle the problem of drunken driving. In particular, he wanted to know why a get-tough bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Hawker, an Anchorage Republican, died in the state House this year.

Under that bill, accused drunk drivers out on bail would have been barred from driving any vehicle that didn't have an ignition interlock device, a mechanism installed on a dashboard that prevents the vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking. And a second drunken driving offense in 10 years would constitute a felony, under the measure. Under current law, the third DUI in 10 years is a felony.

Since January 2009, courts in most parts of Alaska have been requiring convicted drunk drivers to install the ignition control device, but the state doesn't have a good way to verify if drivers are following through, legislators were told at hearing in Juneau earlier this year.

At any rate, that new requirement didn't apply to Phillips.

Outside of court, Butler, the defense attorney, said the bigger problem is a shortage of alcohol treatment and slots in special courts designed to help alcoholics, while holding them accountable.

"Lori is really -- while you may use her as an example of why we need jails -- Lori is more an example of why this community needs to wake the hell up and decide we are going to do better."


Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

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