Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Nowak Case Churns Along

It's been a while since we checked in on Navy Captain Lisa Nowak, the disgraced former astronaut accused of attacking a romantic rival at the Orlando airport in March, 2007. While the court case against Nowak is still moving forward (albeit slowly), it's still unclear when she'll go to trial on kidnapping, assault and other charges.

When we last reported on Nowak, she had hired a high-priced legal "spin doctor" to handle the media aspects of her trial. However, the public relations expert has apparently counseled Nowak to maintain a low public profile, while defense attorneys and prosecutors battle over evidence that could be used against her.

So far, it appears to be an effective strategy. Tuesday, three judges from Florida's 5th District Court of Appeals heard arguments that will determine if prosecutors can use statements Nowak made on the day of her arrest, and items seized from her BMW.

The appellate hearing was prompted a 2007 decision from Orange County Circuit Court Judge Marc Lubet, who ruled that Nowak's statements and items from her car could not be used as evidence in her trial. Without her comments--and physical evidence from the car--prosecutors will have a more difficult time in making their case against Nowak.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, the appellate judges focused most of their questions on whether detectives had the right to search Nowak's vehicle, which was parked at a motel near the airport.

The judges wanted to know whether the car would have been found without Nowak's statements.

[Prosecutor Kellie] Nielan said police had other evidence ---- including a printout from La Quinta and a hotel-shuttle schedule -- that would have led them to the vehicle even without Nowak's help. And, she added, they would have had enough probable cause to search it based on the earlier attack.

Police had already taken a knife, a mallet and a BB gun out of a duffel bag Nowak had with her. Shipman also had identified Nowak as her attacker, Nielan said.

She pointed out that Becton testified a year ago that he initially thought Nowak might have intended to kill Shipman and that he would find evidence of a crime in the car.

"If he applied for a [search] warrant, he would have gotten one," Nielan said.

Nowak's attorney, Donald Lykkebak, disagreed."It would have been sheer speculation that there was anything in the car connected to the crime," he said.

After the hearing, Mr. Lykkebak said he was pleased with the judges' questions, saying they focused on key issues in the case. He also expressed hope that the case will return to circuit court in the near future, saying that his client is anxious to get through the trial and "get on with her life."

But there's some question as to whether Nowak will ever face a jury. No one knows when the appeals court will make a ruling. If they side with the circuit court judge, then prosecutors will have less evidence to use against the former astronaut in court.

If they decide to press ahead with the case, Nowak won't go to trial until sometime in 2009, two years after her attack on Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, the girlfriend of her former lover, ex-astronaut Bill Oefelein.

Nowak confronted Shipman at the Orlando airport after she returned from visiting Oefelein in Houston. Police say that Captain Nowak developed a detailed plan for abducting (and possibly, murdering) Shipman. Nowak and Oefelein, both members of NASA's astronaut corps, had a two-year affair before he began dating Shipman.

Fired by the space agency shortly after the scandal broke, Captain Nowak was reassigned as a staff officer at Naval Air Training Command Headquarters in Corpus Christi, Texas. As we noted last year, the new job provided a convenient, out-of-the way spot for the Navy to "park" Nowak while the civilian justice system ran its course. Any military action against Nowak would, presumably, come after her trial in Florida.

Truth be told, the Navy would prefer for the whole matter to just go away. So far, the service hasn't followed the shameful example of the U.S. Army, which allowed Colonel Scott Carlson to retire before his Pennsylvania trial, on fraud charges relating to a faked paternity test. Carlson was finally convicted last month, but as a civilian, not an active duty military officer. He's facing prison time, but so far, his pension and other retiree benefits remain intact.

If the case against Nowak continues to unravel, don't be surprised if she is also allowed to retire. Memories of the "astronaut scandal" have already begun to fade, making it easier for the Navy to let Nowak slip out the door, before (or shortly after) her day in court.


ADDENDUM: Despite the shame she brought to NASA, Captain Nowak still received her Space Flight Medal from the agency in June 2007, less than three months after she was fired. (N/T: NASA Watch). We wonder if the Navy will add a Meritorious Service Medal or Legion of Merit to her decorations, as Nowak exits from active duty.

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