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Daily trial details in leaf-pile tragedy

Tuesday, Jan. 14

Clad in a green suit with poplin top, 19-year-old Cinthya Garcia-Cisneros took the witness stand Tuesday to testify in a case where she is charged with two counts of felony hit-and-run. Garcia was the driver of a car that allegedly struck and killed two young sisters playing in a Forest Grove leaf pile Oct. 20.

Garcia (who does not use the Cisneros) detailed her life prior to the accident, including her attendance at a Hillsboro beauty school. She and her boyfriend, Mario Echeverria, had talked about the future, including “getting married, having children and owning my own salon,” she said.

Garcia then described the evening of Sunday, Oct. 20, when she, her boyfriend and her brother decided to go out and get something to eat. Echeverria had wanted to go to McDonald’s, but her brother suggested they instead go to Sonic. Garcia said she was nervous about going to Sonic because she had just gotten a job there. She also said she had been a licensed driver only five months at the time.

Her testimony was accompanied by a security video of the car she drove—a Nissan Pathfinder belonging to Echeverria’s mother—pulling up to Sonic. The jury watched as Garcia struggled with a seatbelt that became stuck, and as the three young people returned to the vehicle with their food in tow.

During the drive back, Garcia-Cisneros said the three were talking and listening to music. The route had little traffic. As she turned the Pathfinder onto Main Street, she said, “I saw a few parked cars. I saw a few leaf piles. It was pretty dark, I didn’t really see a lot.”

The mood was light, she noted, “We were laughing. We were happy.”

The young woman drove through a small leaf pile and nothing happened.

“I saw a larger leaf pile, kind of extending out into the road.”

“Did any one suggest you go through it?”

“My brother.”

“Did you think that was a good idea?”

“I didn’t see anything wrong with it.” Garcia said she saw nothing near the leaf pile. No kids, no clothing, no yard tools.

(Earlier testimony in the trial has indicated the sisters were lying down when they were struck.)

“I went on the leaf pile and I heard a bump, so I steered to the left to avoid my back tire from hitting that same bump.”

Garcia testified that she looked at her boyfriend and said, “’I’m sorry.’ He said it was probably just a log or a rock. I agreed with him.”

After returning home, Garcia said she and Echeverria sat down to watch television, but her brother said “I’ll be back.” She testified she assumed he was going to his girlfriend’s house because she believed they had been arguing earlier in the day. As they were watching “Family Guy,” a loud knock came on the door, which was locked. It was her brother.

“I got a little panicked because he sounded scared.” She said that her brother insisted she come outside and refused to talk to her until she sat down.

Then he told her, “I think you hit a child.”

“I looked at him like ‘What are you saying? What are you talking about?’ I didn’t know how to react. I was shocked at what he was telling me. I was thinking, ‘How could I hit a child? I didn’t see a child.’”

Garcia insisted her brother stop playing with her and he told her he wasn’t. “I started pacing back and forth trying to think of what he was telling me.”

Garcia insisted that she didn’t remember asking if there was blood. Nor did she remember suggesting going to the police, as her brother and boyfriend testified.

But the feeling of the bump was on her mind, she said. “I kept thinking about that bump. There could not have been a child under there, or two children.” She began to weep and said, “I kept telling myself I didn’t hit anything, I didn’t see children. I didn’t see toys. I didn’t see parents. I didn’t see any sign of there being children…a child.”

It was the next day, she said, when she finally grabbed her IPod and read news accounts of the accident online.

With tears streaming down her face, Garcia-Cisneros told the courtroom, “I couldn’t react to it. I spent all night (thinking) that it wasn’t true. And then to find out it was true.”

“You have shown a lot of emotion today,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Bracken McKey said to Garcia on cross-examination. “How much emotion did you show when the police were interviewing you?”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

“You didn’t shed one tear that day, did you?” said McKey, who also asked, “Do you know what it is to lie by omission?”

“Yes.”

He asked Garcia if she had told the police about checking for blood and for damage to the car, or about her brother informing her that she had hit someone. She answered that no, she had not. He then asked about her talk with a particular investigating officer.

“I told him the truth, just not about the bump.”

McKey then asked if she told the officer there was no crash, no contact.

"Yes," she replied.

“That was a lie, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

Dr. Michelle Guyton, a forensic psychologist, took the stand to explain the effects of traumatic events. Primary responses to traumatic events include shock, a feeling of being overwhelmed, and a struggle to understand the new information, she said. “People struggle to really understand what happened, believe it, and fit it into their worldview.”

She also said people may not remember what happened during an event.

On cross examination, McKey asked Guyton whether comments such as ‘Should I go to the police?’ would be strong evidence that a person understands he or she has done something wrong.

She responded, “I think if a person said, ‘I need to go to the police and tell them I did something wrong,’ then yes.”

Earlier that afternoon, before Garcia’s testimony, Defense Attorney Ethan Levi sought to exclude further inference that Susan Dieter-Robinson was denied access to her daughter because Garcia did not return to the scene.

He argued that even if Garcia had been there, officers would still have had to treat the accident as a crime scene. McKey disagreed.

The motion was denied by Washington County Circuit Court Judge Rick Knapp.

Other witnesses Tuesday included Garcia’s father, Mario Garcia Sr., who testified about his daughter’s character and life. He spoke of her childhood, growing up without a mother, and her role in the household as a quasi-wife and mother to him and his son. Cynthia Garcia’s mother lives in Mexico City and has had very little contact with the family.

Mario Echeverria’s mother also took the stand and declared that Cynthia Garcia was an honest person.

When McKey asked whether she would change her opinion if she were told that Garcia-Cisneros had lied to the police, she said “Yes.”

When questioned again by Levi, however, she insisted again that the defendant was honest.

The jury is set to hear closing statements beginning at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning.

A new, larger courtroom this week is accommodating more spectators, with clear lines being drawn between the two sides when it comes to seating arrangements. The slain girls’ parents, Tom Robinson and Susan Dieter-Robinson, wore green bands on their wrists Tuesday.

Earlier Tuesday morning, Washington County Circuit Court Judge Rick Knapp denied a motion to acquit Cinthya Garcia.

The motion was based on the unusual nature of the case, in which the defense maintains Garcia (she doesn’t use Cisneros) didn’t realize she had hit a person when she felt a bump as she drove through a pile of leaves, but thought instead it was a log or rocks.

Two young girls, sisters Abigail Robinson and Anna Dieter-Eckerdt, were killed in the incident in Forest Grove on Oct. 20, 2013.

Defense attorney Ethan Levi said there is nothing in the law requiring someone to return to the scene of an accident they didn’t realize they had caused.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Bracken McKey said language requiring “return” was part of the original law but was removed because it seemed superfluous, given that drivers would still be required to provide relevant information when they learned their connection.

Tuesday was the second full day in Garcia’s trial.

Earlier that morning, McKey appeared to be indicating that Garcia, her brother and her boyfriend may have suspected they hit more than just a rock or a log.when driving to Garcia’s Forest Grove home.

Picking up on a thread from last week’s testimony, McKey questioned Mario Garcia — Cynthia Garcia’s brother — about his statement that after they reached their home a few blocks from the leaf pile, he hopped on his bike to go visit his girlfriend and just happened to pass Tom Robinson, who was pulling his mortally wounded daughters from the leaves.

The trio of teens had brought food home from Sonic and McKey had Mario Garcia confirm that he had left his milkshake and cheesecake bites untouched at his home in order to rush off to visit his girlfriend.

McKey then questioned Bruce Shields, an instructional assistant at Forest Grove High School’s Community Alternative Learning Center. Shields said Mario had talked to him about the accident and told him “he hopped on his bike and rode back to see what he had hit” but never said anything about visiting his girlfriend.

McKey also questioned the girlfriend, Briana Orris, who said she’d told Mario Garcia not to come visit because she was going to the park with her father.

Orris later confirmed to Levi that Mario Garcia would sometimes come to her house unexpectedly and sometimes even when she had told him not to. Orris said it would not surprise her if Mario Garcia came to visit her anyway that night.

During testimony last week, Susan Dieter-Robinson put her fingers in her ears and wept as a 911 recording — played by McKey — detailed a frantic call for help from her husband, Tom Robinson, after their girls were struck by a car.

In his opening statement Thursday morning, McKey noted the duties of a driver as outlined by Oregon law and suggested that although Garcia may not initially have been aware she was involved in an accident, once she learned of the children’s injuries she was responsible for fulfilling the law’s remaining obligations.

Levi countered that although she was verbally informed of the accident and possible injuries, Garcia could not believe the situation was real, so was unable to carry out the duties of a driver.

Dieter-Robinson left the room when her husband took the stand. Robinson described the compassion of his 11-year-old daughter, Abigail, and the energy and honesty of Anna, 6.

When the girls asked if they could rake leaves that October evening, Robinson agreed and grabbed his camera. His photos of the girls tossing leaves in the air and laughing were submitted as evidence.

Robinson said he told the girls that he was going to put away his camera and asked them to come inside in five minutes. While inside, he heard a car accelerating, followed by a “thud,” he said. Looking out the front door, he saw the rake and broom across the street next to the pile of leaves.

He described reaching into the pile and finding Abigail first, and then Anna.

“I noticed Abigail was breathing, so I wanted to take care of Anna,” Robinson said. At that point, he said, he called his wife, and then 9-1-1. He cleared leaves off Abigail and pulled Anna out of the pile onto the greenway.

During the 911 call, a youth on a BMX-style bicycle rode up and Robinson began talking to him. His “Please help” request can be heard on the recording.

The young man was Mario Garcia. Shortly after that interaction, Main Street was filled with emergency and police vehicles.

Anna was pronounced dead at the scene and Abigail was transported by LifeFlight to a Portland hospital. Robinson described being told that she would not survive, and the painful decision to donate her organs.

Forest Grove Police Officer Scott King testified that he called for a crash reconstruction team (CART).

The CART, Hall explained, is activated during a fatal or serious injury car crash where criminal activity may be involved. “We didn’t have a driver, or a car, which starts leading up to ‘this is a hit and run,’” Hall said. “You don’t know if DUI (driving under the influence) is involved, if this was an intentional act, if reckless driving was involved. We treat it as if it is the worst thing possible.”

Hall said this kept the parents from having physical contact with Anna’s body.

“We rely on trace evidence, possibly from victims’ clothing, marks on their remains,” so contact is then kept to an absolute minimum, he said. Dieter-Robinson has blamed the defendant’s refusal to come forward for keeping her from holding her child before the body was taken away.

Enrique Hernandez Gonzalez, the Garcias’ neighbor, testified that he was in his garage when he heard a female crying and asking “Is there any blood?” He looked out and saw a female weeping and three young males inspecting an SUV. The next morning, when he heard on the news about the incident, his mother instructed him to call the police.

The most compelling testimony of the day came when Mario Garcia took the stand, however. He tearfully testified it had been his suggestion to drive through the pile of leaves. He described hearing a bump and feeling an impact.

He also insisted that going for ice cream after the accident was his idea as he wanted to just calm his sister down. When the prosecutor asked, “Was there a conversation about going to the police?” Garcia said that yes, his sister had wanted to go. He was unsure how that decision changed.

Garcia also stated that his sister suggested going to the police as they drove past the accident scene when they returned home that evening.

Mario Ricardo Echeverria, Cynthia Garcia’s 18-year-old boyfriend, described in detail the drive down the street and the impact. Dieter-Robinson clasped her hands to her ears as he did so.

“How long was it before you guys understood that you had hit and killed these children?” McKey asked.

“Probably about 15 to 20 minutes,” Echeverria replied.

Echeverria insisted throughout his testimony that it was his decision alone to wash the vehicle and to move the vehicle to his home. Cynthia Garcia, who spent much of the day in tears, began to shake and sob even more as Echeverria was taken from the courtroom.

The jury includes nine men and two women, with a female alternate.

Thursday, Jan. 9

Susan Dieter-Robinson put her fingers in her ears and wept Thursday as a 9-1-1 call — played by Deputy District Attorney Bracken McKey — once again detailed a frantic call for help from her husband after their children, sisters Abigail Robinson and Anna Dieter-Eckerdt, were hit by a car while playing in a pile of leaves in Forest Grove on Oct. 20, 2013.

Judge Rick Knapp’s Washington County Circuit Court courtroom in Hillsboro was bursting with spectators as testimony began in the trial of Cinthya Garcia-Cisneros this morning. After finding that public access was not adequate in his courtroom, Knapp moved the case to Judge Donald Letourneau’s courtroom. Family members filled the front row: seated closely together were Randal Eckerdt (father of Anna) and his fiancée Jane Samuels, and a seat away, Tom Robinson (father of Abigail and his wife Susan Dieter-Robinson (mother of Anna). As the defendant was brought into the court room, tears rolled down the face of Dieter-Robinson.

In his opening statements, Deputy District Attorney Bracken McKey noted the duties of a driver as outlined by Oregon law and suggested that although Garcia may not have been aware she had been involved in an accident, once she was made aware of the childrens’ injuries she was obligated to fulfill the remaining obligations of the statute.

The prosecutor wrapped up his statement by telling the jury, “I’m going to get up here Tuesday afternoon and hold the defendant accountable for her actions that night and look her in the eye and tell her that she is guilty,” McKey told the jury as he wrapped up his statement for the prosecution.

Defense attorney Ethan Levi countered that although she was verbally informed of the accident and possible injuries, Garcia could not believe the situation was real, so was unable to carry out the duties of a driver. “She kept telling herself that this couldn’t be true, I didn’t see anything, and she convinced herself that it didn’t happen,” he said.

The first witness on the stand was Tom Robinson. When he took the stand, Susan Dieter-Robinson left the room. He described both girls, beginning with his own daughter, Abigail. “She was always looking out for people,” he said. “How I admire her compassion for other people.”

He stated that Anna came into his life when he met Susan and “right from the get-go, [she] and Abigail had a very tight bond.” He noted that Anna often used him as her personal climbing gym, and though more reserved than Abigail, “she knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.”

Robinson stated that although it was coming close to bedtime that October evening, he agreed when the girls asked if they could go rake up leaves. He grabbed his camera and the family went outside to rake and take photos. Placed into evidence were photos of the girls tossing leaves in the air and laughing.

Robinson then told the girls that he was going to put away his camera and to come inside in five minutes, he said. As he was putting away his camera, he heard a car accelerating, followed by a “thud.” He called the girls from the back door, and receiving no answer, went to the front. He didn’t see them there, but noticed the rake and broom across the street next to the pile of leaves. “The only thing I could think was the girls are in the pile of leaves,” he said.

He described reaching into the pile and finding Abigail first, and then Anna. “I noticed Abigail was breathing, so I wanted to take care of Anna,” said Robinson. At that point, he said, he called his wife, and then 9-1-1. He cleared leaves off Abigail and pulled Anna out of the pile into the greenway.

Robinson was later asked to describe an interaction between himself and a young man on a BMX-style bicycle. Robinson indicated this was the person to whom he was speaking during the 9-1-1 call when he is heard asking, “Please help.”

The young man was Mario Garcia, brother of the defendant. Shortly after that interaction, police arrived. Robinson testified that within moments, Main Street was filled with vehicles and personnel from several police agencies, medical response teams and Forest Grove Fire & Rescue.

Anna was pronounced dead at the scene and Abigail was transported by Life Flight helicopter to a Portland hospital. Robinson described being told that she would not survive, and the painful decision to donate her organs. Abigail was removed from life support the following day.

The prosecution then heard testimony from several members of police agencies. Officer Scott King of the Forest Grove Police Department testified that he was the first officer on scene. He contacted Sgt. Michael Hall and a Washington County Sheriff’s office sergeant, requesting a crash reconstruction team (CART) to respond. The Washington Country Major Crimes Team was also involved.

The CART team, Hall explained, is activated during a fatal or serious injury car crash where criminal activity may be involved. “We didn’t have a driver, or a car, which starts leading up to ‘this is a hit and run,’” Hall said. “You don’t know if DUI (driving under the influence) is involved, if this was an intentional act, if reckless driving was involved. We treat it as if it is the worst thing possible.”

A sobering moment came when Hall was asked by prosecutors (over defense objections) if treating the situation as a crime scene affected the ability of the parents to have contact with the deceased child in the street. “Yes,” he said, explaining further that “We rely on trace evidence possibly from victims’ clothing, marks on their remains, things of that nature.” Contact is then kept to an absolute minimum, he added, a certain reference to Susan Dieter-Robinson’s statement at the sentencing of Garcia’s boyfriend, Mario Echeverria — who was convicted last month of hindering prosecution — that she was not permitted to hold her child before the body was taken away because the three young people refused to come forward.

Also taking the stand Thursday was Enrique Hernandez Gonzalez, neighbor of the defendant. He testified that he was in his garage when he heard a female crying, and asking “Is there any blood?” He looked out and saw a female crying and three young males inspecting an SUV. The next morning, when he heard on the news about the incident, his mother instructed him to call the police.

The most compelling testimony of the day came when Mario Garcia took the stand, however. He tearfully testified it had been his suggestion to drive through the pile of leaves. He described hearing a bump and feeling an impact. He also insisted that going for ice cream after the accident was his idea as he wanted to just calm his sister down. When the prosecutor asked, “Was there a conversation about going to the police?” Garcia said that yes, his sister had wanted to go. He was unsure how that decision changed. Garcia also stated that his sister suggested going to the police as they drove past the accident scene as they returned home that evening.

Witness Mario Ricardo Echeverria, the 18-year-old boyfriend of the defendant, was brought to the courtroom in restraints, out of sight of the jury. He told a slightly different version of the story than Mario Garcia. In his version, Cinthya Garcia drove the Nissan Pathfinder to Sonic, then home. As he spoke in detail of the drive down the street and the impact, Susan Dieter-Robinson clasped her hands to her ears.

“How long was it before you guys understood that you had hit and killed these children?” questioned McKey.

“Probably about 15 to 20 minutes,” Echeverria replied.

Echeverria insisted throughout his testimony that it was his decision alone to wash the vehicle and to move the vehicle to his home. The defendant began to shake and sob as Echeverria was taken from the courtroom.

The trial will continue Tuesday, Jan. 14, at 8:45 am. The jury includes nine men and two women, with a female alternate.

— Betty Campbell

Garcia-Cisneros broke down in tears during the trial.Wednesday, Jan. 8

Pre-trial proceedings in the trial for Cinthya Garcia-Cisneros continued Wednesday. Garcia (she doesn’t use the Cisneros part of her name) is charged with two counts of felony hit and run in an accident that took the life of sisters Anna Dieter-Eckerdt and Abigail Robinson of Forest Grove.

Garcia-Cisneros sat, head resting on her clasped hands, as the proceedings began with testimony from Dr. Michelle Guyton, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor at the school of Professional Psychology at Pacific University.

Defense Attorney Ethan Levi wants Guyton to testify as an expert witness, but Senior Deputy District Attorney Bracken McKey objected to her inclusion in the trial, saying Levi had notified him of that too late.

Guyton testified that people have myriad responses to trauma, including looking for alternative explanations, rumination, crying, fear, anxiety and depression. “They may show no emotion,” she said.

Guyton said Garcia had shown some “initial denial” about her connection to the accident and that cognitively, she was looking for ways to believe it had nothing to do with her. “She didn’t seem to refute that the bad thing had happened, but she was looking for ways to deny her attachment,” Guyton said. Garcia did not have a psychotic break from reality, Guyton said.

The defense argued that not only could Guyton explain why Garcia might have behaved as she did, but that Guyton also happens to be the only board certified forensic psychologist in the state.

Washington Circuit Judge Rick Knapp ruled that Guyton could testify regarding the experience of trauma victims but not about her evaluation of the defendant.

Levi also tried to keep the 911 tape out of the trial, calling it “inflammatory.”

McKey said that would be like asking him to “fight with one hand tied behind my back” and Judge Knapp said he’d need to hear the 911 tape to decide, at which point Garcia-Cisneros immediately began to cry quietly.

In the 911 call, Tom Robinson, father of the girls who died in the incident, is heard asking for medical help as his girls were hit by a car.

911: How many kids were hit?

TR: Two.

911: Where is the car?

TR: I don’t know where the car went.

911: What color was it?

TR: I don’t know where the car is. I have no idea. I was inside the house putting my camera away. They are both unconscious. I think one of them is breathing. I’m not sure about the other one.

911: Can you check on them? Is there anyone there to help you?

TR: No.

The tape continues, with the 911 operator beginning to instruct Mr. Robinson how to give cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). The police then arrive and the call ends.

Knapp ruled the recording could be included in the trial, saying it was not unduly emotional or unfairly prejudicial.

In another decision, Knapp allowed Levi to include one photograph of Garcia standing alone but not a second one showing her with her autistic nephew.

These rulings followed several of Knapp’s decisions Tuesday, including one that will allow the prosecution to enter Garcia-Cisneros’ statement to police as evidence.

Both sides agreed not to mention the previous juvenile conviction (for sodomy) of Garcia’s boyfriend, Mario Echeverria, who was involved in the accident.

Jury selection began Wednesday afternoon. Due to the size of the jury pool and the limited courtroom space, no access was granted to press or spectators for those proceedings. When the trial begins, spectators will be admitted on a first come-first serve basis. Media representatives are receiving no preferential treatment.

A line formed by the door to the courtroom (405J), which filled up early. It seats 36 with additional chairs added at the end of each row and has been filled to capacity even during pre-trial motions.

Tuesday and Wednesday, most of the spectators seemed to be there to support Garcia. When the trial begins Thursday and supporters of the Dieter-Robinsons arrive, the seating is certain to become even tighter.

Tuesday, Jan. 7

Pre-trial motions took up all day Tuesday in the case of Cinthya Garcia-Cisneros, the driver who allegedly struck and killed two young sisters playing in a Forest Grove leaf pile in October.

Washington County Circuit Judge Rick A. Knapp, who is presiding over the proceedings, heard numerous motions from defense attorney Ethan Levi. As the News-Times went to press Tuesday, it appeared jury selection would not start until today, Wednesday, Jan. 8, at the earliest.

Garcia (she does not use Cisneros) is charged with two counts of “failure to perform the duties of a driver,” commonly termed “hit and run.” The crime is a class C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Garcia was brought to the U.S. as a 4-year-old and is legally here only through the Deferred Action Childhood Arrival program, meaning that if she is convicted, she would not only serve prison time but likely be deported to Mexico, where she has not lived for 14 years.

Tuesday afternoon, long before the actual trial was set to start with the attorneys’ opening statements, the courtroom was full and had many more people waiting outside to get in.

The News-Times will post daily updates on the trial at fgnewstimes.com, assuming our reporter can get inside. Media representatives are getting no special access.



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