Mobile doctor accused of reckless murder ‘thought he was entitled,’ prosecutor says

Published: Mar. 1, 2023 at 2:22 PM CST
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - The reckless murder trial of a former neurosurgeon started Wednesday with two very different pictures of the defendant.

To the prosecution, Jonathan Nakhla was “entitled.” To the defense, he is a life-saver who will have to live down a tragic accident.

The wreck shortly after midnight on Aug. 1, 2020, claimed the life of 24-year-old medical student Samantha Thomas. Nakhla, 38, stands charged with reckless murder.

“The defendant thought he was entitled,” prosecutor Ashley Rich said during her opening statement. “And that will be the theme of the state’s case.”

Defense attorney Richard Jaffe offered the defense theme of the case during his opening statement: “This is a civil negligence matter, not a criminal matter.”

Rich, who retired as district attorney in January, is leading the prosecution. She told jurors she would offer testimony that Nakhla had a history of speeding and sometimes used an identification card he received as a volunteer police surgeon to get out of tickets.

Rich said evidence from the Audi Spyder’s so-called black box indicates the vehicle was going 138 mph seconds before it crashed on the Interstate 65 service road. Nakhla, she said, had a blood alcohol level of .11, well past the legal driving limit.

Jaffe urged jurors to consider that the alcohol concentration is derived from a “retrograde extrapolation” based on the defendant’s level hours later at the hospital.

“It’s not as cut and dried as what you were just told,” he said.

Jaffe also challenged the accuracy of the data from the black box, known as an event data recorder.

“The EDR was defective,” he said. “It wasn’t working properly.”

Rich pointed to Nakhla’s conduct immediately following the wreck. Rather than showing any concern for the young woman was dead in the passenger seat, she said, Nakhla asked about his $50,000 watch and was distraught over damage to the car.

“He couldn’t fathom that his $299,000 sports car was totaled,” she said.

Jaffe said Nakhla was a caring doctor who had performed three life-saving surgeries the previous day. He said his client’s behavior was the result of a concussion he had suffered, not a callous attitude toward Thomas.

The opening statements offered a preview into the defense. Jaffe focused on another driver, Chris Davis, who he said turned without signaling in front of Nakhla. That caused the doctor to swerve. Jaffe said Davis did not call 911 and refused to give a statement to police.

Rich characterized the defense strategy as an attempt to shift blame that belongs squarely on Nakhla.

“Mr. Davis turning left never would not have been an issue if the defendant hadn’t been speeding and driving under the influence,” she said.

Updated at 11:57 p.m. to correct an error misstating the defendant’s name in one one reference.


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