Driver who killed 7 denied new trial

A southside woman who crashed after driving the wrong way down a highway at 100 mph, killing seven people, won’t get a new trial.

Judy Kirby, 46, will continue serving her 215-year sentence after being convicted of seven counts of murder and other felonies.

A Morgan County judge rejected Kirby’s request for a new trial, which was based on a claim that her lawyers did a poor job representing her at trial in 2001. She was represented by Franklin attorney Jennifer Jones Auger and her father Tom Jones, who is now deceased.

Morgan County Prosecutor Steve Sonnega said both attorneys were accomplished and practiced trial lawyers and that the judge was right to toss the request for a new trial.

Kirby’s attorney, Kathleen Cleary of the State Public Defender’s Office, was not available for comment.

The four months since Kirby was back in the courtroom to ask for another trial have been trying for Louise Cossari, who has since remarried after losing her husband Thomas Reel, and their children, Bradley and Jessica, in the crash.

“Waiting was hard, wondering what was going on. How would I handle it if she did get a new trial, how my life once again would be turned upside down and it would revolve around her again, wanting to be free for an act she knows she committed. People (were) wishing me the best and saying, ‘We are behind you. We won’t let her get out,’” Cossari said.

The denial for a new trial likely won’t end the case, Sonnega said.

Kirby’s attorneys can now appeal that decision to state courts and ask that judges overturn the Morgan County ruling, he said. Cossari is feeling numb after winning in Morgan County, because she said she knows the case will continue to drag on.

“So even though we have a victory now, the battle still may lie ahead. But for now, I can put this one to rest and enjoy each day I have with my wonderful family and friends. For you see, it is really never over for the survivor. You just tuck it away and continue on with life,” Cossari said.

In March 2000, Kirby was suffering from severe depression and paranoia and was admitted to a hospital involuntarily for mental health treatment. After being released from the hospital a few days later, her sisters who lived in the area took turns watching over her during the day.

On March 25, Kirby was acting odd when she visited her sister’s home on the southside in the morning. Kirby left and her sister attempted to follow her home but lost track of Kirby in Greenwood. Police reports said she made several stops before being captured on video cameras at a gas station at State Road 67 and Pumpkinvine Hill Road. Kirby purchased a few dollars of gas and candy bars for her children and her nephew in her car.

Kirby then turned onto State Road 67 heading north in the southbound lanes, driving at speeds of up to 100 mph. She traveled nearly 2 miles the wrong way, passing several wrong-way signs and turnarounds in the median, before her car slammed head-on into a minivan driven by Reel. Reel and his two children, 14 and 13, were killed. Three of Kirby’s children, Jordan, 12, Joney, 9, and Jacob, 5, and her nephew, Jeremy Young, 10, also were killed.

Kirby and a 13-year-old boy riding in Reel’s minivan were the only survivors.

At trial, Kirby’s attorneys argued that she was suffering from a thyroid disorder that disoriented her. Prosecutors said Kirby intentionally loaded up the car and drove the wrong way, intending to kill herself and the children.

The jury convicted Kirby on seven counts of murder, four charges of neglect of a dependent resulting in serious bodily injury and one charge of aggravated battery. She was sentenced to 215 years in prison.

Judge Jane Spencer Craney, the same judge who heard Kirby’s case in 2001, rejected the claims from Kirby’s attorneys that she received an ineffective defense at trial and on her appeal, which was handled by Auger.

Her attorneys had argued Auger and Jones failed to object to discussion of past “bad acts” that weren’t crimes, which were part of the prosecution’s attempts to determine Kirby’s motive. The Indiana Court of Appeals already had reviewed and determined the evidence was appropriate and the objections would have been overruled and not changed the outcome of the case.

They also questioned instructions given to the jury, which Craney determined also did not prejudice the jury in making its decision. And they said on appeal, Auger did not bring up the issue with the jury instruction, instead focusing on six other points from the trial. But since the jury instructions were given properly and did not affect the outcome of the case, it did not need to be argued, Craney wrote in her decision.

“The fact that none of those issues were successful merely demonstrates that no significant errors occurred at trial. It is simple wishful thinking on the part of Petitioner to suggest the issues raised were less persuasive than the one not raised which has already been demonstrated to be of little value,” Craney wrote.

Although the case can now be appealed, Sonnega said the court got it right at trial and got it right again in February.

“It’s definitely one we would not want to retry and hopefully don’t want to retry. We let Louise (Reel) Cossari know, and she’s grown up with her family missing and a big hole from what she’s lost. It totally changed her life forever,” Sonnega said.

Cossari remarried after the accident and has two daughters, one from her previous marriage with Reel who wasn’t in the car with her dad and siblings, and two grandchildren. She continues to work with a children’s ministry and often hears from strangers who tell her about their own experience losing a family member to a drunken driver or to a parent who killed their child, she said.

They always ask when the pain goes away. Her honest answer is: Never.

“It is always there. You just find avenues to deal with your grief. And just when you think you have it under control, bam, it hits you like a ton of bricks, and you fall to pieces. But you must go on. Life just does not stop for you,” Cossari said.