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Manslaughter plea bargain is in limbo

January 30, 2009

A proposed plea bargain in a nearly 6-year-old vehicular manslaughter case hit a last-minute impasse Thursday in Ventura County Superior Court over what type of sentence the defendant should receive.

Diana Shakhov, 37, of Agoura Hills is charged in connection to the traffic death of 17-year-old Westlake High School student Nicole Johnson in May 2003.

Beverly Hills defense attorney Howard Price said he was hopeful that he and Senior Deputy District Attorney Scott Hendrickson could resolve the case by having Shakhov plead guilty to vehicular manslaughter while driving under the influence without gross negligence.

Such a plea would allow Superior Court Judge John Dobroth to place Shakhov on probation, Price said.

But Hendrickson wants Shakhov to be incarcerated, Price said. Faced with the possibility that Dobroth would sentence her to state prison or county jail, the defense was not willing to enter into the plea bargain. Under 1982’s Proposition 8, also known as the Victims’ Bill of Rights, Price said, Shakhov might not be able to withdraw her guilty plea if the judge sentenced her to incarceration.

Hendrickson said Thursday he was ethically bound not to discuss the proposed settlement.

Price said that in the years since Shakhov slammed her car into the back of the teen’s vehicle on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Shakhov’s mental state has deteriorated to the point where she can no longer intelligently help him defend her. Her mental faculties began to decline, he said, after surgery to remove a rare form of cancer from her carotid artery.

“She’s a distant shadow of her former sharp self,” Price said, noting that Shakhov’s doctors believe she is suffering from an onset of dementia and have her on prescription medication to combat the effects of Alzheimer’s.

“I can’t let the woman be incarcerated,” he said. “She’s in a way already imprisoned both in her mind and in her life.”

Both sides will return to court Tuesday, when a trial is scheduled to begin strictly on the issue of whether Shakhov is mentally competent to stand trial a second time in the death of Johnson.

Shakhov’s first trial ended in a mistrial in February 2006 when jurors deadlocked 9-3 to acquit her of gross vehicular manslaughter while under the influence.

Price argued at the trial that when the collision occurred, Shakhov was not under the influence of a muscle relaxant, which she had been taking for two years to combat back spasms that resulted from work-related accidents.

“Diana’s defense was that she had a back seizure and, out of immense pain, basically what probably happened is that she just jammed on the gas pedal, probably because her knee was locked,” he said.

Shakhov remains free from custody.

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