By LAUREN SILVER, TIFFANY SMITH and COURT TV STAFF
LA CROSSE, Wisc. (Court TV) — A jury has found a woman accused in a hit and run that left her husband dead and frozen in a snowbank outside their home not guilty.
Lori Ann Phillips was charged with hit and run resulting in death and, if convicted, had faced up to 25 years in prison. Prosecutors had said she killed her husband Mark after the pair had argued following a night out drinking.
Deputies with the La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department were first called to the Phillips’ home early on Feb. 23 after Lori called 911 in hysterics to report her husband was in a snowbank outside of their home. The deputies who first arrived on the scene described seeing Lori kneeling next to Mark’s body.
Lori was described by deputies as being “extremely upset and emotional” and told investigators that the couple had argued the night before and that her husband had been drinking. She said, “I didn’t know he was out here though, like this,” deputies said in the criminal complaint. Deputies described her as giving a “rambling statement, possibly saying she did not hurt him, she did not know what happened, and she did not know he was there.”
“Lori admitted at the time they had gotten into an argument and she had gotten in her truck to leave. The passenger door was still open when she left and at that time she told me, ‘but I didn’t hit him or anything’ which Deputy Stoughtenger took to mean hitting Mark with the vehicle.”
Deputies were able to put together a timeline and determined that Lori and Mark had been out with friends at a bar drinking until nearly 11 p.m. Lori told investigators that the couple argued both before and after they returned home, and she decided to leave and go to a hotel. Unable to get a room, Lori said she slept in her truck in the hotel’s parking lot before returning home at approximately 2 a.m. She said she assumed Mark was in bed and only discovered his body the next morning when she went looking for him.
“He was coming around this truck to come and get me so I took off. His door was still wide open,” Lori told deputies at the scene. “My god, I came home last night and I never even saw him.”
Investigators noted footprints that went from the house toward Mark’s body, returning to the house and then back to the body. But when investigators studied photographs of the scene later, they noted what appeared to be two sets of footprints: “It appears as though it was possible that tracks were made from the rear of the residence to Mark’s body, back to the residence, and then back to his body; making two separate but complete trips from the house to the body.”
Deputies said that Mark’s body was partially frozen to the ground and he had some snow covering his body. The medical examiner determined Mark’s cause of death was multiple blunt force injuries, and his manner of death was listed as undetermined.
The couple had a home security system with cameras, but Lori told detectives that she turned the system off around 2 a.m. when she returned home so that she wouldn’t wake Mark by setting off the motion detector.
Both prosecutors and the defense have asked the judge to allow them to introduce evidence of prior domestic violence. The defense is asking to introduce evidence of previous allegations of violence in Mark and Lori’s relationship. Prosecutors want to introduce a previous conviction of disorderly conduct stemming from a domestic incident Lori had with a previous boyfriend in 2010.
The judge denied a request from the defense to have the jury visit the couple’s driveway where Mark was found.
DAILY TRIAL UPDATES
DAY 5 – 11/10/23
- Lori Ann Phillips returned to the stand.
- The judge warned the attorneys to watch their behavior after the prosecutor accused the defense attorney of coaching his client during cross-examination.
- The jury heard closing arguments.
- The jury deliberated for more than four hours before finding Lori Ann Phillips not guilty.
DAY 4 – 11/9/23
- La Cross County Sheriff’s Deputy Peter Sloan testified to surveillance video collected from the bar where Mark and Lori had spent the earlier part of their evening, as well as surveillance video showing Lori at a hotel later that night.
- John Zimmerman, a former captain in the La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department, testified to the cell phone data collected from Lori and Mark’s phones.
- Specific searches on Lori’s phone included “Hotels near me,” “physical abuse” and driving directions.
- The state rested its case-in-chief.
- The judge denied a defense motion for a directed verdict.
- A patrol officer with the La Cross County Sheriff’s Department was the defense’s first witness, who testified to being dispatched to the Phillips’ home for a previous domestic violence call.
- Matt Gierok, a bartender, testified that he saw Lori with Mark at the bar, where he intervened because of the way Mark was speaking to his wife.
- Hannah Kilenski, Lori’s friend, testified to a pattern of abuse in Lori’s relationship with Mark.
- Hannah was the person to whom Lori sent a text telling her not to respond on the night Mark was killed.
- Hannah testified that she was concerned about Lori because of Mark’s behavior.
- Lori Ann Phillips took the stand and began testifying about her relationship with Mark.
DAY 3 – 11/8/23
- DNA analyst Trevor Naleid testified about pieced of evidence tested that had been taken from the vehicle, including hair found near the front right passenger tire.
- Because there was no root attached to the hair, no DNA was able to be retrieved and the hair could not positively be linked to Mark Phillips.
- Ruth Henk, a supervisor at the WI state crime lab, testified that she compared fibers found with the fabric from the clothes that Mark was wearing. She found fibers from Mark’s clothes beneath the truck’s drive shaft.
- Fritz Leinfelder, an investigator for the La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department, described his role as the first investigators on scene.
- The jury saw video of Leinfelder interviewing Lori Ann Phillips at the police station.
- Leinfelder testified that when they searched Lori’s phone, they found suspicious texts that asked the reader to not reply.
DAY 2 – 11/7/23
- Sgt. Michael Valencia testified about arriving on scene to find Lori Ann Phillips upset, and said that she described Mark has getting aggressive.
- Other deputies at the scene described Lori Ann Phillps as hysterical.
- Dr. Ross Reichard, Forensic and Neuropathologist, testified that Mark Phillips’ autopsy showed abrasions and scrapes on both sides of his face, along his torso, left arm, and along his legs.
- Reichard said that Mark Phillips had been bleeding, which means he was alive when the injuries occurred.
- WATCH: Hit & Run Wife Homicide Trial: Victim’s Death Inconclusive
- WATCH: Hit & Run Wife Homicide Trial: Jury Hears 911 Call
DAY 1 – 11/6/23