Montana Teen Charged With Deliberate Homicide Sues Slain Woman's Family

Prosecutors say Justine Winter purposely crashed her car; she blames dead woman.

August 4, 2010, 12:16 PM

Aug. 16, 2010— -- A Montana teenager charged with deliberately causing a fatal car crash in a failed suicide attempt has filed a lawsuit against the family of the pregnant woman who was killed in the collision with her teenage son.

Everyone from the prosecutor in the case to neighbors of both families have raised their eyebrows at the teen's actions, with some saying it may be an inappropriate defense tactic.

Justine Winter was 16 years old the night her car plowed head-on into another vehicle on Montana's Highway 93, killing 35-year-old Erin Thompson and her 13-year-old son Caden Odell. Thompson was four months pregnant.

Prosecutors say the March 2009 crash was a calculated suicide attempt that occurred less than an hour after she broke up with her boyfriend and left his house. Their evidence, in part, rests with a series of ominous text messages Winter sent to her boyfriend minutes before the crash.

"If I won, I would have you," one text message read. "And I wouldn't crash my car."

And another, "That's why I'm going to wreck my car. Because all I can do is f*** up. Because I am a terrible person and I know it."

And also, "Good bye ... my last words."

Winter, now 17, was charged as an adult with two counts of deliberate homicide. She faces life in prison.

The lawsuit claims Winter suffered permanent injuries in the crash and a "loss of capacity to enjoy life." She is also claiming future loss of income as well as past, present and future medical expenses.

Filed last month in Flathead County District Court, the suit names as defendants Thompson's estate, with her husband Jason Thompson as a representative, as well as three businesses that operate and provide services on Highway 93.

Winter, backed by her father Randy Winter because of her status as a minor, accuses Thompson of causing the accident through "negligent driving." The three companies -- Knife River Corporation, Western Traffic Control, Inc., and Mountain West Holding Company -- are accused of failing to properly maintain the highway, which was under construction at the time.

No one from the Winter or Thompson families could be reached for comment. Winter's attorneys, David Stufft and Maxwell Battle Jr., also did not return repeated calls for comment.

Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan, who is prosecuting the criminal case against Winter, told that Winter's lawsuit may prove to be the start of her defense.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it was an effort on their part to force a change of venue or put pressure on the state to get it settled," he said. "I can't speculate on what they're thinking, but it could be strategy of some sort."

"I'm concerned that the lawsuit being filed is going to inflame the public in what's already for us a relatively notorious case," he added.

Court Documents Breakdown of Crash That Killed a Pregnant Mom and Her Son

According to the criminal complaint against her, Winter crossed the center line on Highway 93 going about 85 mph and slammed into Thompson's car. An investigation of the crash shows no tire marks on the road that would have indicated that Winter had tried to avoid the crash.

Court documents allege that a post-crash inspection of the car showed that Winter "was not wearing her seatbelt, she was at 95 percent throttle ('all the way to the floor.')

The same report noted that she was traveling 86 mph three to five seconds before impact and braked only one second before impact.

"In that effort to take her own life, the defendant instead took the lives of Mrs. Thompson and Caden," Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan wrote in the complaint.

Montana State Trooper Dustin LaRette, who arrived on the scene the next day for the accident reconstruction, said the road construction going on at the time of the crash that reduced the speed limit from 65 to 55.

The criminal complaint noted that neither road conditions nor alcohol were thought to be a factor in the crash.

"It was a bad crash," LaRette said. "It's up there with some of the worst one I've seen."

Western Traffic Control, Inc., and Mountain West Holding Company did not return messages seeking comment, but a spokeswoman for the Knife River Corporation issued a statement that they can not comment on pending litigation, but that their sympathies are with Thompson family.

"However," the statement read, "we believe our work was performed correctly and was not a factor in this accident."

Winter is currently waiting on an appeal her attorneys filed to get her case moved to juvenile court. If the appeal is denied, Corrigan said she may go to trial on the homicide charges in September.

Neighbors of both families say the crash and rumors that followed have been hard on the small community.

"It's just been a heart breaking thing," said Thompson's neighbor Faye Williams, who got to know Caden when he'd come take her puppy for a walk.

Williams said she doesn't believe that Thompson would have ever driven so badly as to cause such a crash as Winter's lawsuit claims.

"She wasn't anybody who would have been driving erratically. Not with her son in the car and her being four months pregnant," Williams said. ""I just feel that that girl is trying to get a way out or something."

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