'Very rare': Judge allows loved ones to address alleged boat club drunken driver

'The arrangement actually felt more like a sentencing hearing' a former judge said
Posted at 11:03 PM, Apr 23, 2024

MONROE, Mich. (WXYZ) — A number of former judges told 7 News Detroit that they’ve never seen an arraignment filled with so much emotion as the one that took place in a Monroe County courtroom Tuesday morning.

The suspect in the deadly crash at the Swan Boat Club in Berlin Township on Saturday was formally charged.

Family members of the victims were allowed to testify, which is something usually reserved for later in a trial.

“I had to see my deceased niece and nephew. I had to see their very last moment before her car was removed,” the victims aunt Raquel Smothers said.

The judge let friends and families of the victims address the court and the defendant.

“She took my grandbaby from us,” grandmother Kathy Phillips said.

“There’s no justifying what she did to my family," uncle Nicholas Phillips said about the defendant. "There’s none. This will never ever be right.”

Sixty-six-year-old Marshella Chidestar is accused of driving her car under the influence into a boat club hosting a children's birthday party, killing two young siblings, 8-year-old Alanah Phillips and 4-year-old Zayn Phillips.

Several others were injured including the siblings' older brother and mother. As of Monday, their conditions were:

  • 31-year-old woman remains in critical condition
  • 11-year-old boy remains in critical condition
  • 18-year-old woman in serious condition
  • 16-year-old girl in serious condition
  • 14-year-old boy in serious condition
  • 70-year-old woman with minor injuries
  • 66-year-old woman with minor injuries
  • 62-year-old woman with minor injuries
  • 57-year-old woman with minor injuries

VIDEO: Video shows vehicle right before deadly crash at Swan Boat Club

Video shows vehicle right before deadly crash into Monroe County building during birthday party

Chidestar is now facing eight felony charges, including two charges for second degree murder.

“I had to be the one to tell my sister her babies were gone when they removed her ventilator yesterday," Smothers said. "She said 'How am I supposed to live without my babies?'”

The emotions on display were extremely rare for an arraignment hearing, which is usually straightforward listing off the charges and setting bail.

VIDEO: Watch the full arraignment of Chidester below

FULL ARRAIGNMENT: Driver arraigned in Swan Boat Club crash that killed 2 kids, injured others

“Have you ever seen an arraignment like that where there’s testimony?" I asked University of Detroit Mercy Law professor Adam Wright.

"No, I haven't," Wright replied. "The arraignment actually felt more like a sentencing hearing.”

However, Wright says the judge has full discretion to allow it.

“The Michigan Constitution provides a right to victims to know about the arraignment and to attend any kind of hearing, but the decision to whether they speak is entirely up to the judge,” Wright said.

“The judge is required to look at a number of factors in determining the bail amount — one of those is the seriousness of the offense. From what I can tell, most of the testimony that was heard today related to the impact of defendant's actions. So, it would fit in the statutory framework, but it’s typically something the prosecutor would describe not necessarily something witnesses would speak to.”

VIDEO: Hear from the aunt during the arraignment below:

Aunt of 2 kids killed in Swan Boat Club crash speaks at the arraignment of suspect

“It's very rare — very rare," former Wayne County Judge Craig Strong described. "But this is a different type of case, and I think the court did the right thing.”

Strong says he has let victims testify during arraignments before on very few cases.

“Normally, it's done at the time of sentence. But because of the circumstances of this case with the number of victims, the number of children killed, the sadness and grief of the families, I think the judge showed a lot of compassion in allowing them to share their feelings,” Strong said.

The judge allowed multiple family members — in person and over zoom — to testify. There were some interruptions from those on the Zoom that led to back-and-forth exchanges with the defense attorney, who claimed his client wasn’t drunk but instead had a seizure.

The prosecution said there's no evidence to support that a seizure led to the crash, adding that the defendant took a breathalyzer and blew "significantly" higher than the legal limit.

The judge gave the Chidestar a $1.5 million bond.

If you would like to help the family pay for funeral services, you can do so at the verified GoFundMe link here.

A GoFundMe has also been set up for one of the victims in the hospital. This page is also verified.

Anyone with information regarding the incident is asked to call the Monroe County Sheriff's Office Detective Bureau at 734-240-7530.

Related: Restaurant hosts fundraiser for family of 2 siblings killed in Swan Boat Club crash