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Science News

Ex-astronaut wants evidence tossed

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak testified on Wednesday that she asked in vain for the right to speak to a lawyer during her police interrogation and denied that she had consented to a search of her car.

Former astronaut Lisa Nowak testifies in Orange County Court in Orlando, Florida September 19, 2007. Nowak testified on Wednesday that she asked in vain for the right to speak to a lawyer during her police interrogation and denied that she had consented to a search of her car. REUTERS/Red Huber/Pool

Nowak, who once flew on the space shuttle, is accused of assaulting a romantic rival. Her attorneys want the Florida court to throw out her interrogation and key evidence found in her car because she was denied her basic legal rights.

On the witness stand on Wednesday, Nowak disputed the testimony of an Orlando police detective, who said she had given police permission to search her car through nods and mumbles of consent, and said she asked for a lawyer even though there was no evidence of that request in a transcript.

“There are pieces that are missing out of this transcript,” Nowak told the court.

Det. William Becton acknowledged during his testimony that there were gaps in the recorded interrogation that occurred when the 30-minute tapes he was using ran out. But he testified Nowak never explicitly asked for a lawyer.

The testimony came in the continuation of a court hearing that began in August on defence motions to exclude the interrogation and evidence on the grounds that Nowak did not give informed consent and that her constitutional rights were violated.

Nowak was arrested on February 5 after police say she drove from Houston to Orlando International Airport, disguised herself and assaulted Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman. Police said she told them she wore diapers in her car so she would not have to make as many stops along the way.

Nowak is charged with attempted kidnapping, battery and burglary. NASA later fired both Nowak and Bill Oefelein, the astronaut who was dating Nowak and Shipman.

TRIAL SET FOR APRIL 7

Her trial, originally scheduled for Monday, was delayed after her lawyer said Nowak might claim she was insane when she allegedly attacked Shipman. The new trial date of April 7 gives prosecutors more time to prepare for an insanity defence.

But first, her lawyers are fighting to have the crucial evidence tossed out.

On the witness stand on Wednesday, Becton said Nowak gave permission for the search of her car even though there was no specific consent in the interrogation transcript.

“What phrase did she utter that was a green light to you to go search that car?” Nowak’s lawyer, Donald Lykkebak, asked.

“There was no phrase she said. It was a nod of the head and ‘mmhmm,’” Becton replied.

Nowak later denied it.

“I absolutely did not ever say that you can search my car and give my consent,” she said.

At the prosecutor’s request, Judge Marc Lubet agreed to listen to the tape recording of the interrogation to get the flavour of the give-and-take between Becton and Nowak, which Becton likened to a chess match in which he was outmatched by Nowak’s brilliance.

“She’s a rocket scientist,” prosecutor Pamela Davis told the judge, arguing that a smart, educated woman like Nowak should be able to understand her rights as given by Becton.

Lykkebak countered, “She was not sophisticated in the matter of law.”

Prosecutors argued that even if the judge decides her rights were violated, the evidence seized from her car should be permitted at trial because police eventually would have found the car without her help and obtained a search warrant to look inside.

Lubet ruled in August that the defence had made a strong case that there was no warrant for the car search and that Nowak felt she had to give her consent, shifting the burden to prosecutors to prove that it was a legal search.

The judge said he would rule on the motions at a later date.

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