Updated: Wednesday, April 13, 2016, 6:45 PM
A Philadelphia nun on trial on drunken-driving charges testified Wednesday that she was under the influence of a sedative and had no recollection of crashing her car into a building on a South Jersey highway.
Sister Kimberly Miller, a high school librarian and theology teacher, was arrested after driving her Chevrolet Impala into an auto repair shop in Washington Township, Gloucester County, last Nov. 15. Police alleged that she was intoxicated, had slurred speech and bloodshot eyes, and was staggering when she got out of her car. At the time of the accident, Miller was wearing her blue habit and black veil.
During a nearly six-hour trial before Municipal Court Judge Martin Whitcraft, however, her two lawyers offered what they described as "the Ambien defense." They said Miller suffered an adverse reaction after taking the sedative that caused her to "sleep drive."
"She did not have any knowledge that taking Ambien would have this effect," said Jeffrey Lindy, one of her lawyers. "She doesn't remember."
Police said Miller never told them that she had taken Ambien, but disclosed two other medications.
The defense contends Miller has a history of sleepwalking that stems from her childhood, when she was molested by a grandfather. She also suffers from chronic arthritis and insomnia, which aggravates her condition, they said.
Miller, 41, said she lost four hours of her life after taking a pill, drinking a glass of altar wine, and going to bed at St. Veronica's, the North Philadelphia convent where she has lived for 17 years. Earlier that night, Miller said, she attended a book fair in Haverford, where she had "two small glasses of wine."
When she woke up, she was at the Washington Township police station, Miller said. She had traveled at least 20 miles from the convent. "At first I thought it was a dream, because I had handcuffs on. I was in my habit. I'm a nun," she said. Miller said she was not wearing hosiery, which was unusual for her.
Police charged Miller with driving under the influence, reckless driving, and leaving the scene of an accident. She was allegedly driving the Impala around 3 a.m. when the vehicle backed into a Meineke Auto Shop in Turnersville, smashing the shop's front door.
A motorist, Giovanna Lewandowski, said she called 911 after she spotted Miller's car swerving erratically on Route 42. She said Miller initially was not wearing a veil but had it on when police stopped her car a short distance away.
A passerby captured video as Officer Paul Crozier led Miller through a field sobriety test. Miller failed two tests and declined a third, he said. He testified that Miller's eyes "were watery and droopy."
"She kind of stumbled out of the car. She kept losing her balance. Her speech was very slow," Crozier testified. "She looked like she was under the influence of something."
Miller told one police officer that she had not consumed any alcohol, according to testimony Wednesday. Another officer said Miller said she had two small glasses of wine several hours earlier. Police said a half-empty corked bottle of wine was in the backseat of her car. A defense witness said she gave Miller the wine bottle at the book fair and it had been half consumed there. Police said her blood alcohol level was twice the legal definition of drunken driving in New Jersey.
In a blow to prosecutor Scott Burns' case, Whitcraft tossed the blood alcohol test results, ruling that police failed to observe Miller continuously for 20 minutes before administering the Breathalyzer test. The observation is required by law to ensure that the results are not contaminated. Miller was out of the officer's sight for about 2½ minutes.
Nevertheless, Burns urged the judge to find Miller guilty of driving under the influence, based on eyewitness testimony and field tests. Whitcraft said he would issue a decision at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Police said Miller was polite and cooperative during her arrest. At one point, she was crying and appeared to hyperventilate, Crozier said. An ambulance was summoned but she declined medical attention, he said.
Another officer, Lt. William Lee, testified that when he realized that Miller was wearing a veil, it "caught me by surprise."
During the trial, Miller, attired in her habit, sat quietly at the defense table, mostly looking down at her hands.
About a half-dozen somber-faced nuns, also members of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary order, were in court, including the local superior of the convent, Sister Frances Mary Murray. Murray testified that she had observed Miller apparently sleepwalking at least once. Miller tried to walk out of the convent one night, but turned around when she tripped the alarm, Murray said.
"My sense was that she wasn't awake," Murray said.
Miller said she had not taken Ambien for about eight months and took it that night because she was having trouble sleeping. She said one of her brothers is a recovering drug addict and she wanted to avoid becoming addicted, too.
"I just needed five hours of sleep. I hadn't slept for multiple nights," she said.
Defense expert Fran Gingo, a clinical pharmacologist, said Miller had a reaction to the Ambien that caused her to have no recollection of what occurred. Miller said she did not remember driving over a bridge to South Jersey.
"I don't understand how I got to New Jersey," she said. "I couldn't figure out where all the time went."
Miller was placed on administrative leave by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia after images surfaced of her failing the sobriety test.
She was a faculty member at Little Flower High School for Girls in Philadelphia, where she taught theology and was the librarian, leading a popular literary festival at the school.
More than 2,300 people have signed an online petition calling for Miller to be reinstated by the archdiocese.
"She has helped her students blossom into the women they are today with her selfless devotion and dedication to her faith and job as a teacher. She has been a fine educator and a shoulder to cry on for many of her students. In light of recent events, all of the positive things she has done should not be overshadowed by one negative wrongdoing," the petition reads.
Archdiocesan spokesman Kenneth A. Gavin declined comment pending the outcome of the case.
Read full story: Nun charged with DUI blames Ambien, can't recall driving to N.J.