A 37-year-old Ventura woman was found guilty Wednesday of vehicular manslaughter in the death of Ventura County Sheriff's Deputy Lisa Whitney, and prosecutors revealed that the defendant had a prior manslaughter conviction.
The earlier conviction was for stabbing a man to death in San Diego County in 1981. That finding is significant because it could lead to a much lengthier prison sentence for Tanya Pittman, convicted of driving through a faulty traffic signal and broadsiding Whitney's car last year near the County Government Center in east Ventura.
It took jurors three hours to convict Pittman of the felony charge, accepting the prosecution's argument Pittman was under the influence of methamphetamine and muscle relaxers when she ran the intersection on Aug. 12, 1998, and killed the 28-year-old peace officer.
The verdict--delivered before a courtroom packed with Whitney's friends, family and fellow law enforcement officers--brought many to tears.
"I think the jury's verdict reflects the belief that people must be held accountable for their actions, their judgment and their poor decisions," said Whitney's mother, Jan Bryant. "It doesn't bring Lisa back. But it definitely makes a statement: 'Don't do drugs, don't drink and don't drive.' "
Pittman was taken into custody after the verdict following arguments by Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Simon that she poses a flight risk.
To back up his contention, Simon introduced evidence of Pittman's prior run-ins with the law, including a 1989 drug conviction and a 1981 conviction for involuntary manslaughter, stemming from her fatal stabbing of a man on a beach in San Diego County. Pittman served 180 days in jail for that crime.
Simon contends that the 1981 conviction should constitute a first-strike felony under California's three-strikes law, meaning Pittman could face up to 14 years in prison for Whitney's death.
Defense attorney James M. Farley, however, said there were extenuating circumstances surrounding the 1981 conviction, including evidence that Pittman had acted in self-defense. Farley contends that it should not count as a first-strike conviction, in which case Pittman's prison sentence would be lowered to a maximum of five years.
The attorneys will return to court Nov. 18 to hash out the legal arguments.
Outside the courtroom Wednesday, Simon received congratulatory hugs and handshakes from Whitney's friends and family members, including a long line of uniformed sheriff's deputies and officers from the Oxnard Police Department, where Whitney's husband, Scott, is a sergeant.
"I'm very pleased with the result, but obviously I wish we would have never been here," Simon said. "I wish Lisa Whitney were here instead."
According to court testimony, Pittman was driving 56 mph in a 45-mph zone when she entered the intersection of Hill and Telephone roads in east Ventura. The crash occurred at 6:49 p.m. About 10 minutes earlier, a transformer explosion had knocked out power to the intersection's traffic signals.
Whitney, an Oxnard resident, was driving to Camarillo to interview a witness in a rape case she was investigating. She was making a left turn onto Telephone Road when her car was hit by Pittman, who was driving to work at United Parcel Service.
In closing arguments Tuesday, Simon said a potent combination of methamphetamine and a muscle relaxant called Soma impaired Pittman's ability to drive. Farley argued that the prosecutor failed to prove drugs had triggered the crash--a critical conclusion the jury had to reach to find Pittman guilty of felony vehicular manslaughter.
After the verdict, Sheriff Bob Brooks said he was pleased that Whitney's family and colleagues could have some closure.
"We don't have any personal malice toward Ms. Pittman. But a crime was committed, a life was lost, and justice was served today," Brooks said. "This tragedy illustrates that illegal drug use is not a victimless crime."
Added Bryant: "Everyone in this courtroom today is a victim. Every uniform you saw in there, they're victims. I don't know if there's closure, but at least we can all start getting on with our lives."