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Lawyer shows video

Interview video shows distraught defendant. Defense psychiatrist expected to say she was essentially sleep walking.

May 14, 2008|By Joseph Serna

Defense attorneys will begin establishing their argument today that an Irvine woman’s grief and depression triggered a period of unconsciousness that led to her August 2006 car accident that killed a Costa Mesa teacher riding her bike on the sidewalk.

Psychiatrist Ted Greenzang is expected to testify that six weeks after Janene Johns’ husband of 26 years, Andy, died of cancer, Johns’ grief and stress had overwhelmed her to a point where she became unconscious but was still physically responsive. It is similar to sleep walking when the person is physically capable, but psychologically unconscious, defense attorney Gary Pohlson said.

Johns, 53, was driving her silver 2006 Lexus down West Coast Highway to Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian on Aug. 23, 2006, when she swerved onto the sidewalk and hit 31-year-old Candace Tift. Tift, a popular fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Eastbluff Elementary School, died the next day from severe head injuries.

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Johns is charged with vehicular manslaughter and being under the influence. Prosecutors rested their case Tuesday and the defense starts its arguments today.

Tuesday, prosecutor Robert Mestman showed jurors a videotaped interview Johns had with Newport Beach detectives in which she told them she should not have been driving and may have fallen asleep at the wheel.

In the video, Johns at first appeared distraught, breathing heavily and putting her forehead to an officer’s hand while asking if the woman she had hit was OK. She said she had taken sleeping pills, anti-congestion medicine and Xanax earlier in the day.

During the interview, she told detectives she didn’t remember anything from the accident. By the time she realized what was going on, her car had a shattered windshield and she could see a fountain of water in her rearview mirror from the fire hydrant she knocked over. Johns told police she was on her way to the hospital because her shoulder hurt. In the video, she told Det. Bill Beverly she should have stayed home or had her daughter drive her to the hospital.

Jurors also heard testimony from Orange County Sheriff’s Department forensic scientist Mary Stanford that Johns could have been under the influence at the time of the crash.

Johns had enough of the sleeping pill Ambien and the cough suppressant Mucinex in her blood to be affected, Stanford testified.

Stanford explained that unlike the amount of alcohol, the level of a prescription drug in the bloodstream does not indicate intoxication because people develop different tolerances.

Authorities can determine legal intoxication with a blood-alcohol content of .08, but with prescription medicine investigators have to rely on physical symptoms like slurred speech or impaired coordination, Stanford testified.

The Johns’ family physician, Jeffrey Barke, testified he had given Johns a general warning about mixing different prescription drugs that act as depressants.

He said Johns was on a very low dose of Xanax and that mixing it with Ambien posed a very small risk of impairing a person’s driving.

Pohlson told the judge later this week he plans to bring in his own forensic scientist, who also tested some of Johns’ blood and had different results.


JOSEPH SERNA may be reached at (714) 966-4619 or at joseph.serna@latimes.com.

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