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Judge to decide admissibility

Defense claims driver mourning for husband, and taking prescriptions at time of accident.

May 06, 2008|By Brianna Bailey

A superior court judge is expected to decide this week whether jurors in the trial of a woman who lost control of her Lexus and hit and killed a Newport Beach elementary school teacher on West Coast Highway will hear evidence that the driver was distraught over the death of her husband and taking medication for anxiety and sleep disturbances at the time of the accident.

Irvine resident Janene Johns, 53, was taking prescription drugs and over-the counter cough medicine to deal with the emotional aftermath of her husband’s death when her 2006 silver Lexus careened out of control and jumped the curb, killing Eastbluff Elementary School teacher Candace Tift, 31, on West Coast Highway in August 2006, Johns’ attorney Gary Pohlson claimed Monday during a motion hearing before Johns’ trial. Jury selection for the trial is expected to begin today.

Johns looked straight ahead in court during the hearing Monday wearing a black tailored pant suit and a pressed, light-blue striped blouse, as her attorney told how she was taking the prescription drugs Xanax and Ambien, as well as the cough medication Mucinex at the time of the accident. Xanax is a sedative typically used to treat anxiety and panic disorders as well as anxiety caused by depression, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Ambien is a sedative used to treat insomnia.

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Johns began taking Xanax while caring for her husband during an extended illness before his death, Pohlson said. She began taking Ambien after her husband died in July 2006, about six weeks before the accident, he said. The FDA requested the manufacturers of Ambien begin printing stronger warning labels on the drug last year after reports of “sleep driving” while under the influence of the drug, or driving while not fully awake with no memory of the event afterward, according to an FDA report issued in March 2007.

Several family and friends of Candace Tift sat in the courtroom Monday wearing royal blue ribbon pins with gold angels on them in memory of the teacher.

Tift’s son, Owen, who was 14 months old at the time of the accident, will turn 3 this week, said Candace Tift’s husband, Wade Tift.

“That’s probably the nicest and luckiest part of this thing,” Wade Tift said. “He has a lot of Candace’s personality and I promise to share my memories of her with him.”

Tift, who taught fourth- and fifth-graders at Eastbluff, was admired by her students and fellow teachers for her hard work and dedication to teaching, Wade Tift said.

“It doesn’t leave you for a second — the pain of losing your loved one never goes away,” said Tift’s mother, Mary Logan. “She inspired a lot of people...an entire community mourned her loss.”

Johns pleaded not guilty June 11 to charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, and driving under the influence. Johns is accused of hitting Tift, a Costa Mesa resident, while she was riding her bike and walking her dog. Tift, who was not wearing a helmet, died later at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana. Opening arguments in the trial are expected to begin early next week.


BRIANNA BAILEY may be reached at (714) 966-4625 or at brianna.bailey@latimes.com.

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