Lisa Nowak has apologized, had her ankle bracelet removed and let her attorney tell the court she was temporarily insane the night her romantic rival Colleen Shipman was attacked in the parking lot of an Orlando airport. Is a plea bargain next?
Legal analysts around the country were stunned when Nowak stood in front of microphones outside a courtroom in Orlando last month and apologized to Shipman. Or did she apologize?
"The past six months have been very difficult for me, my family and others close to me. I know that it must have been very hard for Colleen Shipman, and I would like her to know how very sorry I am about having frightened her in any way and the subsequent public harassment that has besieged all of us," Nowak said.
Was that an apology or an admission of guilt?
Shipman's attorney, Kepler Funk, has doubt.
"Sounds like an admission to me," Funk said after the staged media event ended outside the courtroom.
Lawyer Chris Tritico, who has defended many high-profile clients, including convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, said Nowak might have had an ulterior motive for making that statement.
"I thought the apology was just a setup for a plea bargain," he said. "I would bet they are engaged in active negotiations now, and the defense is trying to cut off the argument the prosecution will make at sentencing that you never apologized, and use that to get a lesser sentence."
Jury Could Take Mercy
But a plea deal could be risky. Nowak is accused of attempted kidnapping and attempted burglary with assault, punishable by life in prison.
Tritico thinks Nowak's attorney, Don Lykkebak, has a good shot at taking his chances with a jury, rather than agreeing to a plea bargain that would stipulate jail time for Nowak.
"She has no prior record. I wouldn't agree to anything. I can't imagine a jury putting this woman in jail, even if they find her guilty," Tritico said
Lykkebak filed documents with Florida's Orange County Court stating his intent to pursue a mental health defense on Nowak's behalf.
'"Even the most naive observer should recognize that Lisa Nowak's behavior on Feb. 5 was uncharacteristic and unpredicted for such an accomplished person with no criminal record or history of violence," Lykkebak told ABC News. "We look forward to completing the hearing on our pending motions that Lisa Nowak's constitutional rights were abused during interrogation and the search of her vehicle."
Snapping Under High Stress
Many of Nowak's friends have long theorized that the petite former astronaut and mother of three, whom they say is a good mother and a brilliant person, must have snapped somehow. They describe her life as stressful, noting that astronaut training is highly demanding.
Many people wonder just how she could have thrown away so much — her marriage, her children, her career — but statements gathered by police from friends and colleagues suggest that Nowak did not have as much to lose as previously thought.
The weekend she allegedly made that cross-country trip that ended in an attack on Shipman, Nowak had already separated from her husband. Bill Oefelein, the astronaut she had been having an affair with, had left her for a younger woman. She'd also been told just weeks earlier that the seat she wanted on the STS 120 shuttle mission, scheduled to fly next month, was given to someone else because Nowak wasn't considered a "team player."
Friends have suggested she never really recovered from the loss of her colleagues in the crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, and there were numerous things happening in her personal life that made her colleagues' deaths even more difficult.
At that time, Nowak had twin 2-year-old girls, her husband was overseas serving in Afghanistan with the U.S. Navy and she was in the middle of grueling training for her first shuttle flight after eight years of waiting for an assignment.
And former U.S. attorney Kendall Coffee says there are other reasons for a mental health plea.
"It allows a defendant to raise circumstances that would raise sympathy for the extraordinary stress astronauts go through, which would maximize jury empathy and sympathy to get the best possible result," Coffee said.
Is NASA at Fault?
The mental health defense put Nowak's former employer, NASA, in the spotlight, raising questions about whether the space program allowed a mentally ill astronaut to fly on a shuttle mission in the summer of 2006.
Astronaut Piers Sellers flew on that same mission and defended his colleague after court last month. "Just over a year ago, I was on a space shuttle mission with Lisa Nowak. There were many times during the spaceflight when my life was literally in her hands. I felt then and I feel now that I was in good safe hands," he said.
The Nowak case prompted NASA to charter a medical commission to investigate what, if anything, the agency should have known about Nowak's mental health to prevent what happened on the February night when she confronted Shipman. The commission recommended annual psychiatric exams for astronauts.
Nowak's next hearing will be Sept. 19, just days before her trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 24, if there is no deal for a plea bargain on reduced charges.
Judge Marc Lubet will continue to hear arguments on two motions, which if granted, would have a serious impact on the trial.
One motion would prevent Nowak's 72-page statement — in which she admitted the affair with Oefelein and to confronting Shipman — to Orlando Police Detective Chris Becton from being used as evidence in the case. The other motion would keep the evidence seized from Nowak's BMW, including a BB gun, a knife, rubber gloves, a drilling hammer and a floppy disk with the bondage photos, from being used against her as well.