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Judge throws out evidence, statements in ex-astronaut's case

  • Story Highlights
  • Judge: Lisa Nowak's statements and items in her car were unlawfully obtained
  • Nowak's attorneys have said her comments were made under duress
  • Former astronaut is accused of stalking and assaulting a romantic rival
  • Nowak has pleaded not guilty to charges including attempted kidnapping
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(CNN) -- A Florida judge Friday handed a legal victory to a former astronaut accused of assaulting a romantic rival, ruling evidence found in her car and statements she made to police after her arrest were inadmissible at trial.

Lisa Nowak, accused of using pepper spray against a romantic rival, is set to go on trial in April.

Ninth Judicial Circuit Judge Marc Lubet ruled that all were unlawfully obtained.

He said his decision stemmed from a variety of factors, most concerning police tactics in their interview of Lisa Nowak and the fact that no written consent was obtained to search her car.

"In each and every case, this court must ensure that the constitutional protections afforded by our forefathers are scrupulously honored," Lubet wrote in his opinion.

"Unfortunately, in this case those protections were not as thoroughly followed as the law demands."

Nowak, 44, is accused of stalking Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman and using pepper spray against her in a parking lot at Orlando International Airport in Florida on February 5.

She pleaded not guilty March 22 to charges of attempted kidnapping with intent to inflict bodily harm, battery and burglary of a vehicle using a weapon.

Her trial is set for April. If convicted, she would face a sentence of up to life in prison.

Her defense attorneys had claimed Nowak's comments to police and her consent to search her car were made under duress.

During a hearing held in August, Lubet heard testimony from, among others, Nowak, Shipman and Orlando police detective William Becton, who interviewed Nowak after her arrest.

Lubet said in his ruling that when Nowak asked Becton if she needed an attorney during the interview, he failed to answer her question in a "simple and straightforward manner."

"There was a concerted effort to minimize and downplay the significance of the Miranda rights by referring to these constitutional rights as 'formalities' " during the interview, Lubet wrote.

On the audiotape of the interview, there was no audible response from Nowak on whether she understood that her statements could be used against her in court, and when she was asked whether anyone had threatened or promised her anything to get her to talk to police, Lubet wrote.

"Thus, there is nothing in either the audio recording or the transcript of the interview that demonstrates that defendant understood these two rights and waived them."

Nowak testified at the August hearing she did not respond to Becton's questions because she was confused, Lubet wrote.

In addition, he said, Becton used "legally impermissible" statements and techniques, including threats, to get Nowak's statements and consent.

"Well, what you say can change what you're charged with," Becton said at one point. "Right now we're looking at [a] possible life felony of carjacking."

In a written statement, an Orlando Police Department spokeswoman said it was inappropriate for the department to comment on the case since it is pending in court, and referred questions to prosecutors.

Lubet noted that, although Nowak was given the opportunity to use the restroom and was asked if she wanted something to eat, she was "subjected to a barrage of questions" beginning in the predawn hours and was questioned for six hours without being given the opportunity to sleep or make a phone call.

"Defendant had not slept during the preceding 24 hours," the judge said.

Nowak's consent to search her car, Lubet wrote, "followed illegal police activity, such as a prolonged detention, threats to obtain a warrant and repeated requests for consent."

Prosecutors accuse Nowak of driving nearly 900 miles from Houston to Orlando -- wearing NASA diapers to cut down on the number of stops she needed to make -- and donning a disguise before following Shipman from baggage claim to a parking lot.

Her attorney has strongly denied that she wore the diapers.

Shipman told police that after she got into her car, Nowak feigned distress and knocked on the window.

When Shipman cracked it to talk to her, Nowak sprayed her in the face with pepper spray, Shipman said.

Police said Nowak was detained as she was disposing of her disguise in an airport trash bin.

Nowak has said she merely went to the airport to talk to Shipman, who had begun dating Nowak's former love interest, Navy Cmdr. Bill Oefelein, who was also an astronaut but has since left the astronaut corps.

At the August hearing, Becton testified that when he searched Nowak's car, he found maps showing how to reach the airport, maps of the airport's layout, a buck knife and papers including a letter Nowak appeared to have written to Oefelein's mother.

He also testified he found used and clean diapers in the car.

Police previously said they also found a BB gun, a steel mallet, a 4-inch knife and rubber tubing in the vehicle.

Nowak's attorneys in August filed a notice of intent to rely on an insanity defense, saying in court documents her diagnoses include a litany of more than a dozen psychiatric disorders.

On August 30, Lubet granted Nowak's attorneys' request that her electronic tracking ankle bracelet be removed. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Cristy Lenz contributed to this report.

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