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Woman found guilty in fatal ‘nail polish’ crash

Woman found guilty in fatal ‘nail polish’ crash

May 7, 2010 6:03 AM | 113 Comments | UPDATED STORY

Had Lora Hunt been eating a sandwich or dialing her cell phone instead of polishing her nails when she struck and killed a motorcyclist, she would not now stand convicted of reckless homicide, her lawyer contends.

But prosecutor Mike Mermel said there’s a big difference between polishing nails and other forms of distracted driving. “It is not the same as biting a sandwich … it’s a voluntary disablement,” he said. “She might as well have been in the back seat making a sandwich.”

A Lake County jury of eight women and four men apparently agreed. After deliberating 3 1/2 hours today, they found that Hunt, 49, of Morris was criminally reckless in the crash near Lake Zurich that killed 56-year-old Anita Zaffke on May 2, 2009

Anita Zaffke’s son Gregory Zaffke II (from left), his fiancée Heidi Bennett and Anita Zaffke’s husband Gregory Zaffke, Sr. leave the Lake County Courthouse in Waukegan today after the verdict. (Tribune / Heather Charles)

“There’s no question that she drove her vehicle in a grossly negligent manner,” said Mermel, an assistant state’s attorney. “The jury returned an appropriate verdict under the circumstances of this case.”

Hunt, who sat without emotion while the verdict was read, left the courtroom in tears, surrounded by her family and supporters.

“Lora deeply grieves for what happened,” said her attorney, Jeff Tomczak. “Her words after the verdict was read were, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.'”

Tomczak said that in his 25 years of practicing law he has never had a more remorseful client.

“If she could, she would give herself up for Anita Zaffke,” he said.

Hunt, whose sentencing date hasn’t been set, could receive anything from probation to 5 years in prison.

Family members of the deceased Lake Zurich woman said they will not celebrate the verdict but will use it as an opportunity to make more people aware of the dangers of distracted driving.

Zaffke’s son, Gregory Zaffke II, started an activist group called the Black Nail Brigade after the crash. He has been painting the fingers on one hand black in memory of his mother and as a way to start conversations about distracted driving.

“There are no winners today,” he said. “There is no celebration, or happiness.”

Zaffke, of Wauconda, said he was pleased with the verdict but it wouldn’t change the fact his mother’s future was taken from her.

“Even with the maximum sentence imposed, Lora Hunt’s family will still have plenty of time to spend with her,” he said. “I will never see or talk to her again, never get a hug. I will likely spend more time of my life without my mother than I did with her.”

During his closing argument, Tomczak said Hunt admitted that painting her nails while driving was a “stupid, stupid thing.” But he contended authorities were trying to make an example of Hunt because she is a woman.

“I do believe it is the underlying act of painting the nails that was the impetus for the charge,” he said. “I haven’t seen a reckless homicide charge for dialing a cell phone.”

Tomczak tried to convince the jury there’s a difference between being distracted and being criminally reckless. “Consider the concept of paying full attention, then think about the concept of distraction,” he said. “Can you think of anything in between? Rear-end accidents happen because people are distracted. … [To convict] you would have to decide that Mrs. Hunt got into that car and said, ‘You know what, I don’t care. I’m getting these nails done and I don’t care if I hurt someone.'”

During testimony Wednesday, Hunt tearfully recounted how on the day of the crash she hadn’t had a chance to clean up before a planned dinner date with her daughter.

“At that point I thought, well, they already got this dirty, stinky woman coming over, and I messed up my fingers gardening with the kids, and I remembered I had the polish in my purse,” Hunt said. “I thought, ‘I can do it quick and I can do it with both hands on the wheel and I can stay on the road.’ So I got the polish out.”

Hunt said she only applied a couple strokes before putting the brush back into the bottle. As she approached the intersection of U.S. Highway 12 and Old McHenry Road, the light turned to yellow, she said, adding she was looking at the light and didn’t see Zaffke’s motorcycle before rear-ending it.

But Mermel said crash scene photographs showing streaks of dark red polish splattered around the car’s interior were proof that Hunt was still polishing her nails when she hit Zaffke.

“We do know she was still polishing her nails because of the mass and copious quantities of nail polish,” Mermel said.Hunt is due back in court June 15 for a status hearing before sentencing.

— Ruth Fuller

Chicago Breaking News Center website

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