ELLSWORTH --Kari Jo Milberg, the Centuria woman at the helm of a 2013 auto crash that killed her daughter and two nieces, was acquitted Wednesday by a Pierce County jury.
The jury of nine women and three men deliberated less than two hours before reaching the verdict just before 6 p.m. Milberg was found not guilty on three counts of homicide by negligent use of a vehicle and one count of reckless driving causing bodily harm.
The 35-year-old sobbed and kicked her feet in apparent relief as Pierce County Circuit Court Judge Joe Boles read the verdict. Milberg embraced members of her family after the brief hearing was adjourned.
The verdict was shared by an alternate juror who was released from the case before deliberation. She said she saw Milberg not guilty.
“She’s suffered enough,” the woman said.
The Pierce County jury received the case after closing arguments by attorneys who drove home their messages.
Defense attorney Aaron Nelson spoke for nearly an hour Wednesday afternoon, when he implored the jury not to convict. He said prosecution’s attempt prove that Milberg was sending a Facebook message on her phone moments before the Dec. 12, 2013, crash in rural Pierce County that killed her daughter and two nieces was “nothing but misdirection.”
Nelson said three words -- allegedly a Facebook message attempting to send -- seen on a phone screen belonging to Milberg that was recovered months later at the crash site by an investigator should not convince the jury.
“That is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt by any stretch,” Nelson said, adding that it’s not known who used the phone and where the phone was relative to the time of the crash.
He later added: “The government’s got nothing more than guesses, maybes and speculation.”
While defense claimed the crash was merely a tragic accident caused by poor tires on slippery roads, Pierce County District Attorney Sean Froelich urged jurors to consider the phone evidence.
“If the evidence supports it, there’s your answer,” he said.
Froelich also refuted the notion that the messages sent in the moments leading up to the crash were entered by a voice-operated system like Apple’s Siri. He pointed out the use of entries like “I will meet U for lunch” allegedly sent on Milberg’s phone.
“It’s just the letter ‘U,’” Froelich said, pointing to a transcript of the conversation gleaned from phone data. “It’s not spelled out, like ‘y-o-u.’”
The content of the conversation wasn’t the stuff of children, he argued -- refuting the possibility raised by Nelson that it might have been Milberg’s 11-year-old daughter Lydia who was sending the messages. Milberg and the man on the other end appeared to be making lunch plans, according to the transcript.
“This is an adult conversation,” he said. “Think about who is in the vehicle.”
Closing arguments brought strong rhetoric, as both sides attempted to convince the jury.
“Ms. Milberg had no business being on that phone, driving down that highway with those children,” Froelich said.
Nelson told the jury that the state “will say whatever they need, whatever they want, to get a conviction.
“It was an accident,” he said.