TAMPA — After two trials that ended in hung juries, the legal saga of a former Tampa General Hospital nurse concluded on Thursday when a jury found her not guilty of killing a pedestrian and fleeing the scene of the accident.
The nurse, Danielle Goeller, 28, was acquitted despite prosecutors' insistence that she had to have known she had hit a human being with her car.
"This picture speaks a thousand words," said Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Steven Capriati, showing jurors a photograph of Goeller's shattered windshield. She had been driving east on Kennedy Boulevard, approaching Armenia Avenue, when she struck Philip Richard Barrett, 60, who had stepped into the roadway. He died at the scene; Goeller drove home.
Goeller was maneuvering through one of the busiest parts of Tampa at 11:45 on a Friday night in April 2014.
"What does she think she hit? A deer? A bear?" Capriati asked. "She's a nurse at TGH in the trauma department. She's seen hit-and-run victims all the time. She knows what happened."
But at the end of the three-day trial — prosecutors' third attempt to convict Goeller of a first-degree felony — jurors remained unconvinced. After several hours of deliberation, they delivered a not guilty verdict that left Goeller and her family sobbing with relief.
"She has been through hell and back," said Goeller defense attorney Lee Pearlman.
According to Pearlman, what distinguished this trial from the previous two was the defense's decision to put Goeller on the stand, to explain what happened in her own words. Educated, composed and articulate, she came across well, he said.
The defense may also have benefited from a slightly younger jury this time, said attorney Jeremy Clark, adding that younger jurors tend to be more sympathetic to defendants in their 20s.
The defense argued that while Goeller certainly knew something had happened to her car that night, she didn't know what caused her windshield to break. The roadway was dark, and although prosecutors said Barrett's body was hit with such force that his head crashed through the windshield, leaving traces of blood and hair, Goeller's defense maintained she never saw any signs that she had hit a man.
From where his client sat, Pearlman told jurors, Barrett's blood was not visible. There was also no evidence that Goeller was intoxicated.
"She's a scared girl in the middle of the night who doesn't have the life experience other people do," Pearlman said. "She had to make the call."
That night, after Goeller returned to her Harbour Island apartment and went to bed, security guards patrolling her building's parking garage noticed a 2008 Volvo S40 that looked like it had been in a serious accident. They called police, who quickly linked the nurse to Barrett's death and charged her with leaving the scene of an accident involving death.
Not long after the accident, Tampa General Hospital fired Goeller, according to a spokesman there. Goeller declined to comment on her case.
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Pearlman said the case came down to a question of how his client perceived what had happened.
"This is armchair quarterbacking to say it's all there," he said. "Well, great, but if you don't see it … "
Contact Anna M. Phillips at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.