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Defense argues driver in fatal wreck had medical problems

Defense lawyer Rex Butler didn't dispute Tuesday that his client, Lori Phillips, had been drinking before she caused a fatal Seward Highway crash last November, but suggested to jurors that medical problems, not alcohol, may be the real explanation of why things went so bad that evening.

In his closing argument, Butler tried to plant a seed of doubt about the prosecution case that Phillips was drunk and extremely reckless when she got behind the wheel of a Ford Explorer on Nov. 5, 2009, drove the wrong way on the Seward Highway and slammed into a small Toyota sedan, killing the other driver, Louis Clement, and critically injuring his passenger.

Phillips, 56, is charged with second-degree murder, first-degree assault, drunken driving, driving with a revoked license and reckless driving. Her blood-alcohol level was more than four times the legal limit for driving.

Prosecutor Clinton Campion told jurors there was "an overwhelming amount of evidence" supporting all the counts against Phillips, a twice-convicted drunk driver. At the time of the fatal crash, she was out on bail on a drunken driving charge from March 2009, and under orders not to drink or drive. That charge is still pending.

Butler urged jurors to consider less serious charges of manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide.

A second-degree murder conviction carries a minimum sentence of 10 years on up to 99 years. A manslaughter conviction brings a sentence in the range of seven to 11 years for a first-time felon.

Phillips did not take the stand in her own defense.

The case went to the jury just before 2 p.m. Tuesday after both sides presented their closing arguments. Jurors ended deliberations for the day around 4:30 p.m. Deliberations will resume this morning.

Butler told jurors that it was odd no one saw Phillips drinking in the hours before the wreck.

"When we think of a person who's drunk, has caused a fatal accident, we think of a person who maybe was at a party or left the bar, guzzled a bunch of drinks or whatever the case may be over a period of time. Drink, drink, drink, drink, drink. Got in a car, had an accident," Butler said.

But in the three hours before the crash, Phillips was at her Midtown hair dresser getting a hair cut and a perm. No one there saw her drinking or smelled alcohol, Butler said. One stylist said her breath smelled minty. She had a silver travel mug with her but a witness testified it smelled like coffee. She was able to punch in the code to open the Explorer's door.

Her stylist thought she looked sick, and in fact, she was, Butler told jurors.

Blood tests done after the crash indicate serious medical conditions including kidney and liver disease, problems with blood clotting and anemia, Butler told jurors.

With a high blood-alcohol level after the wreck, and no evidence of drinking for hours before it, Butler suggested that perhaps her system couldn't process alcohol anymore.

"Something was wrong with Lori Jean Phillips and it was not just alcohol," Butler said. "This system was compromised, and it's proven out by the blood work."

Butler called no doctors as witnesses to support that theory. The only medical testimony at the trial came from Dr. Doug Vemillion, an orthopedic surgeon who testified for the prosecution about numerous broken bones suffered by the crash survivor, Joyua Stovall. During his cross examination, Butler showed Vermillion the blood test for Phillips and asked what various abnormal results meant. The doctor answered in broad terms. He told jurors he was a bone doctor, not an internist, and had never treated Phillips.

Campion responded that there was no evidence Phillips was ill and jurors needed to stick with the testimony and exhibits presented in court.

"Lori Phillips was an experienced drinker," Campion said. "She's the type of person who's able to mask her drinking from her friends, from her family, from her hair dresser and from everyone else. She's able to mask it with mouthwash, she's able to control her speech, she's able to control the manner in which she conducts herself."

Except on Nov. 5. Her long-time stylist testified that she thought Phillips was drunk or on something, asked to call her a cab, followed her outside the salon, and physically tried to get her out of the SUV. But Phillips said she needed to get home to her daughter and drove away. The stylist called 911. Police started looking for Phillips but didn't find her in time.

Phillips' behavior, Campion told jurors, was "extremely reckless," meeting the standard for murder. She was warned not to drive, she was under court order not to drive, yet she did it anyway while drunk, he said.

Testimony in the trial began Nov. 8. The state presented more than a dozen witnesses including the stylist, a driver who was forced off the road when he saw headlights coming at him, and a state transportation worker who called authorities when he spotted her driving on the wrong side of the highway near Potter Marsh.

A police officer told jurors that Phillips admitted to him after the crash that she had been drinking and shouldn't have been driving.

Then there was the blood test of a sample taken two hours after the wreck. Campion reminded jurors of testimony that Phillips' blood-alcohol level of .328 meant she had the equivalent of 13 drinks in her system at that point. Alcohol leaves the system at the rate of a drink an hour, so at the time of the crash, she would have been impaired by 15 drinks in her system, he said. And if she didn't drink at the hairdresser's, that means she walked into the salon with the equivalent of 18 drinks flowing through her.

Butler asked jurors whether they knew of anyone with an alcohol problem who could drink a lot, and still function. He asked whether they had ever gotten behind the wheel after a few drinks.

He said what Phillips did wasn't as bad as a person shooting into a house and killing someone, or beating someone up and leaving the person outside to die in the cold.

Butler also called the sole defense witness on Tuesday. Ann Sugrue, a paralegal with Cook Inlet Tribal Council, testified that Phillips began alcohol treatment with the agency on Aug. 28, 2009, and last attended on Oct. 31, 2009. Phillips was discharged from the program Nov. 10, 2009, because she was in jail, charged in the fatal crash.


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

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