BEVERLY — A Salem District Court jury has cleared one of the two women involved in a dramatic "road rage" confrontation in the middle of Route 128 last March that went viral after another driver captured part of it on her phone.
Susan Lavoie, 64, of Beverly, was found not guilty of assault and battery and disorderly conduct following a one-day trial Monday, where she took the stand in her own defense.
"I was trying to defend myself," she told the jurors.
The person she said she was trying to defend herself from, Catherine Bergen, 33, of Gloucester, is awaiting trial on charges of assault and battery on a person 60 or older, assault, disorderly conduct, driving recklessly to endanger and stopping or parking on a state highway.
Because of that, Bergen invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and did not testify during Lavoie's trial. Bergen is due in court on Oct. 18.
With so much of the March 29 confrontation either witnessed by other drivers or on video, prosecutors felt confident in going to trial without Bergen's testimony.
One by one, the witnesses took the stand to describe a scenario in which, they testified, Bergen was the initial aggressor — after coming to a dead stop in the right-hand travel lane of Route 128 near the Beverly-Danvers line.
Retiree William Burke of Gloucester was on his way to a medical appointment when he saw Lavoie signal to change lanes. Then, he saw the SUV driven by Bergen, which had been in front of Lavoie, also change lanes.
As soon as Lavoie moved into the right-hand lane, Bergen "slammed on the brakes," Burke said. She then rolled forward slowly and did it again.
Burke honked his horn at Bergen, he testified. "I just assumed there was going to be a huge pileup," he told the jury — saying he even listened for ambulances or a helicopter during his appointment.
After he got home, he turned on the news to see if there was anything about a big crash — and saw a video of the confrontation.
"I felt I had to call the police," Burke testified.
Caught on video
That video had been taken by Katherine Deleo, a young Gloucester woman who was on her way to the gym in Danvers.
"I noticed there were a lot of cars starting to stop and brake," said Deleo. Then, "I really had to slam on my brakes."
That's when she noticed the two vehicles stopped just ahead of her one lane over.
She saw Bergen get out of the SUV. "She started pounding on the window and yelling, 'Get the (expletive) out of the car,'" Deleo told the jury. Bergen, she said, was also pulling on the handle of Lavoie's car.
"I'm thinking, I've got to find my phone to record this," Deleo testified.
Prosecutor Kelly Waldo asked why.
"That's how my generation kind of does things," said Deleo, later adding that when she saw the door open up, "I felt like I was witnessing something so shocking, I thought, 'I'm going to have to explain this to someone.' I felt like it was something I should have documented, and I'm glad that I did."
To her, it appeared that Bergen was trying to drag Lavoie from the car, she testified under questioning from Lavoie's attorney, Michael Splaine.
"She was angry," said Deleo. "She was screaming, she was swearing, she was pounding on the glass. It looked like she was trying to break the glass."
A third witness, Sonia Gonzalez of Lynn, was returning from visiting friends in Gloucester when she wound up directly behind Lavoie and Bergen's vehicles.
She said she grew concerned when the driver of the SUV, later identified as Bergen, got out and "started screaming" at Lavoie. She said Bergen was hitting the glass and kicking the door. To her, it appeared that once Lavoie tried to get out of the car, Bergen pushed her door toward her, causing her to fall.
When Waldo asked if she saw Lavoie hitting Bergen, Gonzalez said she didn't.
"I don't think she hit her," said Gonzalez, who said she was afraid the older woman would be seriously hurt if she didn't try to intervene.
She got in between them. "I told the young girl to leave," said Gonzalez. "I asked the second lady to go in her car. She was shaking."
By the time state police Trooper Scott Hayes arrived, everyone was gone.
Later on, he said, he learned of the video and ran the license plates. Then Lavoie called.
"She had seen herself on the news," said Hayes.
"She admitted she did get out and that in retrospect, she shouldn't have," Hayes testified.
'I was very scared'
Lavoie, a retired bank employee, testified that she was on her way to visit her son and grandson in Danvers and needed to change lanes to get off at the next exit.
She had no idea what was about to happen, she said.
"I was very scared," she testified, describing herself as in shock, not angry.
Then, after she opened the door, Bergen punched her, she testified.
Splaine introduced a still frame from the Deleo video which, he argued, showed that moment. That nearly caused her to fall to the ground, but she caught herself.
"She was trying to punch me again," said Lavoie. "I was trying to grab her hands to have her stop hitting me."
"She was angry that Ms. Bergen stopped," said Waldo in her closing argument. "She was angry Ms. Bergen hit her."
"She had a choice," Waldo told jurors. "She made the wrong choice. She didn't leave."
But Splaine argued to jurors that his client did what she could to defend herself from a "rageful" Bergen.
"Who stops a motor vehicle in the middle of a busy highway, and then gets out?" Splaine, referring to Bergen's actions that morning, asked the jury.
Judge Carol-Ann Fraser told jurors that in order to find someone acted in self-defense, they would have to have first attempted to retreat from the situation. She also, at the request of Waldo, instructed jurors on the concepts of retaliation and mutual combat.
The jury was out for about half an hour before returning the verdict.
Jurors declined to comment as they left the Ruane Judicial Center on Monday afternoon.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, email@example.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.