A Matter Of Life, Death And Faith

A controversial case is being played out in a California courtroom.

Prosecutors say an alleged drunk driver killed a woman. But defense lawyers claim the woman died because of her own religious beliefs.

CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales reports the jury is trying to decide who killed 55-year-old Jadine Russell. Was it Keith Cook, the drunk driver whose out-of-control pickup slammed into Mrs. Russell, her daughter, and two police officers at an accident scene?

Or did Mrs. Russell's own actions lead to her death?

Mrs. Russell might have survived if she'd had a blood transfusion at the hospital, but she refused to allow one. But Mrs. Russell was a Jehovah's Witness, a religion whose members believe there is a biblical basis to refusing transfusions of other people's blood.

Defense attorney Charles Unger said he will prove that his client's speed and level of intoxication, while not defensible, were not grossly negligent. He is telling jurors his client didn't murder Russell, that she would be alive if it wasn't for her faith.

"What should have happened is, this accident takes place, she has injuries, her ruptured spleen is removed, and she goes on with her life," says Unger. "Now she's dead, and the death is not Mr. Cook's responsibility."

The Russell family feels the defense is unfairly putting their dead loved one on trial.

"Jadine did not pour Keith a drink, and she didn't get his keys and give them to him after he was drunk," says Jadine's husband, James Russell.

The Russells say their religion is very important to them, and if they had to do it all over again, they'd try almost anything to save Jadine.

"She was a good wife, and I would have done anything to save her other than a blood transfusion," adds Russell.

If Keith Cook's "blame-the-religion" defense works, he could still get four to eight years in prison on drunk-driving charges. If he's found guilty of murder, he's looking at life behind bars.

On Thursday, jurors heard from prosecution witnesses, some of them law enforcement officers still suffering from injuries they received March 7 after they arrived at the scene of Mrs. Russell's accident, only to be struck themselves.

California Highway Patrol Officer Craig Stevens told jurors how he arrived to investigate Mrs. Russell's initial crash. Soon, Cook's pickup truck was bearing down on him, the officer testified.

Cook's truck hit Mrs. Russell's car, which in turn plowed over Stevens, Mrs. Russell, her daughter, and investigating police Sgt. Raymond Zamora.

On the night she died, Mrs. Russell and her daughter were returning home from a movie. Jennifer Russell testified that on the way to the hospital her mother repeatedly said she didn't want a blood transfusion and even tried to pull out an intravenous line.

Deputy District Attorney Larry Larson said by the time Mrs. Russell reached the hospital, she had lost half te blood in her body, but he said that should not divert attention from Cook's behavior.

The 32-year-old auto mechanic got drunk at a party, argued with another guest, then left despite friends' attempts to take away his car keys, Larson said. Cook also was on probation for a 1996 drunken driving conviction.
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

Comments