Jury reaches guilty verdict in Nakhla trial

Published: Mar. 21, 2023 at 11:07 AM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - A jury on Tuesday found a former Mobile neurosurgeon guilty of reckless murder in the death of a passenger during an August 2020 high-speed car wreck.

Jonathan Pishoi Nakhla, 38, was a prominent doctor at Mobile Infirmary at the time. He went for a ride in his 2018 Audi R8 Spyder convertible with 24-year-old University of South Alabama School of Medicine student Samantha Thomas. According to testimony, he was intoxicated past the legal driving limit and traveling at 138 mph on the Interstate 65 service road at about 12:40 a.m. on Aug. 1, 2020, when he lost control.

The vehicle flipped several times and landed in a ditch upside down. Thomas died instantly, and authorities later charged Nakhla with reckless murder.

Jurors heard nearly three weeks of testimony, with the prosecution case boiling down to two key factors – speed and alcohol. The defense focused on Christopher Davis, who as turning into the Comfort Inn parking lot at the time. The defense accused Davis off cutting in front of Nakhla without signaling, forcing him to swerve.

The jury deliberated for about two hours over two days before reaching the unanimous verdict.

Harold Thomas, Samantha Thomas’s father, expressed relief at the verdict.

“Justice was served,” he said. “The court system works. And everybody did a great job.”

Thomas, who traveled from his home near Huntsville to attend the trial, described the difficulty of having to see the evidence – including gruesome accident scene photos of his daughter.

“Reliving it step by step,” he said. “Pretty rough.”

Added Samantha Thomas’ stepmother, Christiana Thomas: “Having to watch video of a car going 130 miles an hour, knowing that your daughter’s in that car, and knowing that when it hits that first embankment „, was probably the worst for our family. Over and over and over.”

Defense attorney Dennis Knizley said he was disappointed by the verdict.

“We thought we made the case that the car turned in front of him without a blinker, with only a split second – I literally mean less than half a second to make the decision,” he said. “I think the the horrific nature of the injury and the death and the speed of 138 miles an hour, and you put alcohol in there, it was just difficult for the jury to take into consideration the causation issue.”

Knizley said he believes Nakhla will have some good appeal issues, including the fact that the judge did not declare a mistrial after finding out prosecutors had not turned over all of the surveillance video police had gathered from the Comfort Inn. Prosecutor Ashley Rich told the judge after the trial started that she was not aware police had that video.

Knizley said the defense would ask the judge to be “as lenient as possible” at the April 20 sentencing hearing.

“This gentleman has never been in trouble a day in his life,” he said. “He was a tremendous asset to the community. He was a neurosurgeon. And one night in his life has changed everything.”

Mobile County District Attorney Keith Blackwood said due to the “extreme indifference to the value of human life,” his office would seek the maximum sentence of life in prison.

“To us, this was the clear result all along, and it was a very, very difficult case,” he said. “You know, there were a lot of factors at play in this.”

The defense asked that Nakhla be allowed to remain on bail until his sentencing hearing, but Mobile County Circuit Judge Ben Brooks denied that. He said he does not believe he ever has allowed someone convicted of murder to walk out of his courtroom without handcuffs and that he had to treat all defendants the same.

“That’s fundamental to our justice system,” he said.

Blackwood praised the judge’s decision on bail.

“This was the first time that this family has seen any kind of accountability on the part of Jonathan Nakhla, and this is the beginning of the accountability that he will face as a result of this conviction,” he said.

The defendant’s father, Said Nakhla, told FOX10 News he is extremely disappointed.

“I am still in shock,” he said. “People pull guns and shoot people (and get convicted of lesser offenses). But now he gets murder?”

Thomas’ family has started a scholarship for medical school students at the University of South Alabama in her name.

Christiana Thomas said the family hopes to “keep Samantha’s name alive for USA, for our family.”

Updated at 1:35 p.m. with reaction from the prosecution, defense and the family of victim Samantha Thomas.