There’s little doubt Denise Larkins used her Chevrolet Tahoe to run over her friend Michelle Johnson on a Tacoma street 18 months ago.
The question for a Pierce County jury is whether Larkins knew what she was doing the evening of Dec. 16, 2011.
Prosecutors allege she did, following Johnson as she walked down the street and then accelerating and running her down when she stepped into the intersection of South J and 43rd streets.
Larkins’ defense attorney claims otherwise. The 35-year-old Tukwila woman was so “flooded with terror and confusion” that day she could not form the intent to hurt her friend, the defense attorney contends.
Larkins’ second-degree murder trial got underway before Superior Court Judge Jerry Costello on Wednesday with opening statements.
Deputy prosecutor Phil Sorensen told jurors Larkins committed murder in one of two ways: She either meant to kill the 45-year-old Johnson when she ran her down or only meant to assault her but killed her in the process.
The women had been running errands in Larkins’ Tahoe most of the day and been “arguing off and on, mostly on,” Sorensen said. Defense attorney Mary K. High later told jurors the argument turned ugly when Larkins told Johnson’s daughter, who also was in the SUV, the woman had been using street drugs again.
At one point, Johnson hit Larkins in the face or head before getting out of the SUV, the deputy prosecutor said. Johnson then went into a nearby house for a few minutes before exiting and walking east on 43rd Street, he said.
Larkins “paced” Johnson in the SUV, Sorensen said, then took “a hard left, accelerated and drove right over the top of her” as the older woman stepped into the intersection.
“Michelle Johnson was on foot and walking away,” Sorensen said. “The defendant tracked her down and ran her over. She did so on purpose.”
Johnson’s skull was crushed and she died.
High did not dispute the facts but said her client did not know what she was doing. Larkins was in the throes of an anxiety attack after arguing with the hot-tempered Johnson nearly all day and thought her friend might do something to hurt her, High said.
The defense attorney said two mental-health experts – one hired by the defense and another employed at Western State Hospital – would testify that Larkins has post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by a childhood fraught with emotional and physical abuse.
Larkins called 911 shortly before running Johnson over to report Johnson had attacked her.
“You can hear her panic and fear and anxiety mounting during that call,” High told jurors. “Ms. Larkins was afraid.”
Larkins drove away after the collision and later told police she didn’t think she’d hit Johnson, court records show.
The trial is expected to last more than two weeks.