‘Psychotic episode’: Judge finds woman not guilty due to insanity after fatal accident


By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 10:46 am on Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Nicole Stapleton was found not guilty by reason of insanity Monday for her role in causing a multi-vehicle accident that led to a man’s death in February 2012 in Howard City. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

STANTON — A judge has found a woman not guilty by reason of insanity for her role in causing a series of multi-vehicle collisions, resulting in the death of one man and the injuries of several others on Feb. 26, 2012.

Nicole Stapleton, 31, of Howard City, appeared before Judge Suzanne Hoseth Kreeger for a bench trial Monday morning in 8th Judicial Circuit Court. A bench trial is a trial by judge, as opposed to a trial by jury.

Stapleton was charged with operating while intoxicated while under the influence, causing the death of John Reniff, 31, of Gladstone, formerly of Howard City. She also was charged with reckless driving causing death, operating while intoxicated causing serious injury to Reniff’s passenger, Melissa Ballard, reckless driving causing serious injury and failure to stop at the scene of a personal injury accident.

Stapleton was scheduled to go to trial Monday. However, instead of a jury trial, a bench trial took place in which Stapleton pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. After considering the evidence, the judge found Stapleton not guilty by reason of insanity.

 

A series of collisions

According to previous court testimony, John and Teena Adams of Howard City were returning from breakfast in Sand Lake the morning of Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012, when their Volkswagen Jetta was struck from behind by a Chevrolet Silverado going approximately 80 miles per hour in a 55 mile per hour zone. The back end of the Jetta lifted up off the road and the trunk collapsed, but the Adams were not injured in the collision

The Silverado passed the Jetta and continued toward Howard City at an increasing rate of speed.

Julie Osbourne of Howard City was headed to MacNaughton Elementary School to catch up on some classroom work that same Sunday morning. She was in her Chrysler Town & Country minivan southbound on Federal Road waiting to turn left on Walnut Street when she saw a truck speeding northbound. Other vehicles were pulling off the road, attempting to get out of the way of the truck. A Chevrolet Tahoe was coming through the intersection.

The Silverado hit the Tahoe, forcing the Tahoe and the minivan to collide. The Silverado continued north, just missing the Dairy Bear ice cream parlor before striking a tree and coming to a rest.

John Reniff and Melissa Ballard had just left the Tour Inn in Howard City. The engaged couple was headed to Reniff’s grandmother’s house just a few blocks away to celebrate the grandmother’s birthday.

The Silverado was going approximately 100 miles per hour when it struck the Tahoe in a 35 mile per hour speed zone. Something hit the back of Reniff’s head as the three vehicles collided, shattering his skull and instantly knocking him out. He never woke up. He was airlifted to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, where died that night.

Ballard sustained a broken arm, a tailbone injury and other injuries. She and Osbourne were taken together by ambulance to the Grand Rapids hospital. Osbourne, who suffered minor injuries all over her body, missed a week of work. Ballard wasn’t able to go back to work until the following September due to her injuries.

 

‘A removal of reality’

Stapleton sat quietly and wiped tears from her eyes Monday as her attorney Keary Sawyer detailed the reasons for the not guilty plea. While Stapleton had a very low level of valium-related chemicals in her system, she had no other drugs or alcohol in her system at the time of the collisions.

“Nicole suffered a psychotic episode,” Sawyer said. “We believe that she was in a psychotic state at that point, may have perceived, did not remember, but may have perceived that she was being chased.”

Sawyer said Stapleton was injured in the final series of crashes, including a fractured pelvis. As emergency medical technicians were preparing to bring Stapleton to the hospital, she made an odd series of statements inconsistent with someone who had just been seriously injured in an accident.

“There were comments made to the EMT by Nicole that would lead anyone reasonable persons, including the EMTs and the subsequently treating physicians, to conclude that there was a hypersexuality manic expression consistent with psychosis or a psychotic episode,” Sawyer said. “It is supported by the forensic findings that these collisions and her state was in fact a psychotic episode which results in a removal of reality from the perception of the individual suffering from that episode and a delusional state as well as other manifested behavior.”

Stapleton was evaluated by a state-run forensic agency, which determined that she met the legal description of being legally insane at the time of the accidents, therefore lacking the legal capacity to commit a crime.

Stapleton did not speak in court Monday other than to answer the judge’s questions. Kreeger determined that Stapleton had been experiencing an “episode of acute psychosis” during the series of collisions, which, coupled with the “very bizarre statements” she made to emergency workers, led the judge to find Stapleton not guilty by reason of insanity.

Stapleton has been receiving mental health care and she must continue to do so or she could be arrested on a bond violation, according to the judge.

Stapleton’s driver’s license was temporarily suspended as a result of her arrest. A record of Monday’s court hearing will be sent to the Michigan Secretary of State, which can order a re-examination of the license or suspend or revoke the license based on their findings.

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