Former Mobile doctor ‘turned his car into a weapon,’ prosecutor says during closing argument

Published: Mar. 20, 2023 at 5:20 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Prosecutors Monday told jurors that after nearly three weeks of testimony, they delivered what they had promised – proof that former neurosurgeon Jonathan Pishoi Nakhla’s excess drinking and speeding caused a fatal car wreck.

Defense lawyer Dennis Knizley countered that the evidence shows what the defense maintained throughout the trial – that another driver caused the accident by turning in front of Nakhla without signaling.

There is no dispute that the single-vehicle wreck at about 12:40 a.m. on Aug. 1, 2020, produced horrific results. Nakhla, who was a surgeon at Mobile Infirmary at the time, lost control of his 2018 Audi R8 Spyder on the service road on the west side of Interstate 65. The convertible flipped several times, struck a guardrail and landed upside down in a ditch. The wreck instantly killed Samantha Thomas, a 24-year-old University of South Alabama School of Medicine student who was riding with Nakhla.

Mobile County Assistant District Attorney Lauren Walsh told jurors during closing arguments that Nakhla’s conduct – driving while drunk at breathtaking speeds on a two-lane service road – was like firing a missile.

“He turned his car into a weapon,” she said. “It is a miracle no one else was hurt.”

But Knizley said law enforcement investigators “rushed to judgment” because they wanted to target a prominent doctor. He played a clip from an officer’s body camera: “We’ve got a high-profile case here, boys.”

That, Knizley argued, is why police failed to properly investigate the other driver.

“There is no fame, there is no glory, when you investigate a case and there turns out not to be a crime,” he said.

Knizley told jurors that if the Founding Fathers had been watching the trial, “a tear would come to their eye,” and he used a line he has repeated in past trials. To convicted based on the evidence presented, he said, “We might as well burn the courthouse down – because there is no justice.”

Prosecutor blasts ‘infuriating’ and ‘insulting’ insinuation

Former Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich, who led the prosecution, told jurors it was “infuriating” to hear Knizley question the motives of law enforcement.

“We would have charged anybody who is engaging in the same conduct he was. … We have been fighting for 3½ weeks for justice for Samantha Thomas,” she said. “It is insulting to me and insulting to you as jurors for him to say that.”

Walsh took the jury through a long list of witnesses who either said they saw Nakhla drinking in the hours leading up to the crash or observed his behavior afterward. She also reminded jurors of testimony from the state’s chief toxicologist, who described multiple tests that all reached the conclusion that Nakhla was over the .08 legal alcohol limit at the time of the wreck.

Multiple witnesses, Walsh noted, testified that Nakhla bagged about driving fast and that he used a badge and identification card given to him as a volunteer police surgeon to get out of tickets.

“There was a running theme: The defendant believed he was above the law,” Walsh said.

Walsh pointed to Mobile police Detective David McCullough testified that it was obvious from skid marks and other evidence that the Audi was moving more than 100 mph. A former state trooper who now owns an accident reconstruction consulting firm testified that a review of the car’s “black box” showed the it was traveling 138 mph nine seconds before it cam to a final rest.

Both men testified that the accident would not have happened if he had been driving the 45 mph speed lime.

Walsh played several clips from businesses on the beltline that show Nakla’s car as blur – including one shot where the car races by an 18-wheeler traveling on the adjacent interstate highway.

Nakhla was not just driving above the speed limit, he was driving so fast that it “shocks the conscience,” the prosecutor said.

Prosecution, defense differ over cause

Knizley also used surveillance video during his summation, but he focused on a different vantage point – the Comfort Inn. He replayed a clip showing a car driven by Christopher Davis turning into the parking lot just as Nakhla’s car approaches. He said the video clearly shows that Davis caused the accident by turning without signaling. He noted that the prosecution expert that from that point, Nakhla would have had less than half a second to react even if he had been driving the speed limit.

“Johnny Nakhla had not chance, and nor would anybody else driving the speed limit,” he said.

Knizley said Davis’ own conduct suggests he realized he was at fault. He noted that Davis did not talk to police after the accident and left quickly after the wreck. He pointed to testimony that Davis was concerned that the other driver might have been his fiancé's brother because that man had a similar-looking convertible. The fact that Davis could see the other car at night clearly suggests it was not going as fast as prosecutors allege.

Knizley also attacked Davis’ credibility, arguing that the evidence showed he lied about his job and where he lived.

Knizley said the state’s expert witness gave conflicting explanations for why the Audi’s black box” did not record all of the airbag deployments and argued that calls into question his testimony about speed.

Likewise, Knizley said the test used by the toxicologist to estimate Nakha’s blood alcohol concentration at the time of the accident is “dubious.” The more important evidence, he argued, is Nakhla’s conduct on the police body cam footage.

“What did the man look like?” he said. “Did he look impaired? Did he act impaired? And the answer is an unequivocal ‘no.’”

If convicted of reckless murder, Nakhla faces 10 years to life in prison. Jurors have four less serious offenses to consider if they do not believed prosecutors proved reckless murder. Walsh, the assistant DA, told jurors none of those less offenses match the evidence.

“Anything less than extreme indifference murder is an insult to Samantha Thomas,” she said.

The jury deliberated for a little more than an hour Monday before asking the judge to explain the differences between reckless murder and the lesser-included offenses. The judge said he will give the jury instructions against Tuesday morning.

Updated at 5:53 p.m. to include information about the jury’s question.