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Trial opens in 'nail polishing' fatal crash
By Tony Gordon | Daily Herald Staff

Anita Zaffke

 

Lora Hunt

 

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Published: 5/4/2010 1:53 PM | Updated: 5/4/2010 5:49 PM

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It is a decision made at countless intersections countless times every day.

The traffic signal lights turns yellow. Some vehicles stop, others do not.

On May 2, 2009, Anita Zaffke stopped for a yellow at Rand and Old McHenry roads in Lake Zurich, and moments later she was dead.

The trial of the woman whose car slammed into Zaffke's stationary motorcycle at 50 mph opened Tuesday in Lake County Circuit Court.

Lora L. Hunt, 59, of Morris is charged with reckless homicide for crashing into Zaffke because, according to the prosecutor, she was not paying attention to the road while driving.

"The defendant ran over Anita Zaffke while she (Hunt) was polishing her nails," Assistant State's Attorney Michael Mermel said in his opening statement to the jury. "She was actually in the act of polishing her nails."

Originally charged with traffic violations, Hunt was indicted on the felony count more than four months after the crash following an extensive investigation.

She was charged with the more serious offense, prosecutors said, because polishing her nails while driving goes beyond the definition of distraction and becomes a conscious decision to endanger others.

Mermel said the onboard computer in Hunt's

car, which recorded data from the vehicle for 21/2 seconds before the air bag deployment, showed the car did not slow down at all before the impact.

"She kept slamming her right foot to the floor and asked herself why the car was not stopping," Mermel said. "Then she realized she had to move her foot to

left and put it on the brake pedal."

Defense attorney Jeffrey Tomczak said his client, like Zaffke, was a grandmother out visiting children on the day of their tragic rendezvous.

He told jurors in his opening statement there were five vehicles approaching the intersection as the light turned yellow: those driven by Zaffke, Hunt and three witnesses.

One witness, Tomczak said, was in the left lane next to Zaffke as they approached the light.

"She (the driver of the vehicle in the left lane) told police that she was not going to stop because she was afraid of getting rear-ended," Tomczak said. "She said the motorcycle made a 'hard' stop at the light."

Tomczak said he will challenge the prosecution's claim Hunt admitted she was polishing her nails at the exact time of the crash, and instead claims she had put down the brush to concentrate on the intersection.

He asked the jurors to be careful in applying the legal definition of recklessness to the facts of this case.

"They are asking you to decide that Lora Hunt was driving in a manner that was just not wrong, just not negligent and just not in a manner that you would not; but in a manner that was criminal," Tomczak said. "She is not a criminal; she was involved in a tragic accident."

Deputy James Yanecek testified he investigated the crash and determined Zaffke had come to a stop 30 feet in front of the line on the pavement meant to keep vehicles safely away from intersections.

He said Hunt gave him a written statement in which she admitted she had done "a very stupid thing" by deciding to polish her nails when driving.

As if to mirror the crucial issue in the trial - whether Hunt was distracted by the nail polishing or reckless because she was doing so - Yanecek said he had to offer his opinion of two causes for the crash on an accident report.

As the primary cause, Yanecek said he used a code that meant "Distraction from inside the vehicle", and his secondary cause code represented "Operating a vehicle in an erratic, reckless or negligent manner."

Later, Robert Wasilewski of Island Lake testified he was in traffic in the left lane behind Zaffke and Hunt.

Wasilewski testified he believed there was only "a second or two" between the signal light changing to yellow and the impact, and he believed Zaffke had stopped behind the stop line at the intersection.