Was it murder? Jury to hear gripping testimony about deaths of 2 boys in trial of L.A. socialite

Rebecca Grossman holding her husband Peter Grossman
Rebecca Grossman, shown with her husband, Peter, exits Van Nuys Courthouse West on Tuesday. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

For the record:
11:45 a.m. Jan. 25, 2024: An earlier version of this article said the jury for Rebecca Grossman’s trial will include nine women and three men. The panel will consist of nine men and three women.

A Hidden Hills socialite struck two young boys in a Westlake Village crosswalk — an impact hard enough to cause severe front-end damage to her Mercedes.

But was it murder?

On Friday, the question goes before a jury. More than three years after the deaths of Jacob and Mark Iskander, 8 and 11, a panel of nine men and three women will hear opening statements in the trial of Rebecca Grossman. She is charged with two counts of second-degree murder, as well as vehicular manslaughter and hit-and-run charges.

After winnowing the jury pool from about 300, prosecutors and defense lawyers settled on the panel Wednesday that will hear from dozens of witnesses in what is expected to be a highly charged and emotional six-week trial. Six alternate jurors will be picked Thursday.

"We are very happy with the jury," said Tony Buzbee, Grossman's lead attorney, outside the Van Nuys courthouse.

Los Angeles County prosecutors say Grossman was behind the wheel of a white Mercedes SUV that fatally struck the boys in a marked crosswalk. Sheriff's investigators say that she was driving as fast as 81 mph and that, after striking the children, her car continued on for at least a quarter of a mile before it shut down.

Buzbee has maintained that his client was not the only motorist to pass through the crosswalk when the children were struck that night.

Among the first witnesses jurors will hear from is the boys' mother, Nancy Iskander, who said she was crossing when she heard the roar of approaching engines.

Iskander said she held up her right hand in a desperate effort to stop the oncoming vehicles and dived for safety, grabbing her 5-year-old son. Her next memory is of her two older boys crumpled on Triunfo Canyon Road.

"They didn’t stop before the intersection. They didn’t stop at the intersection. They didn’t stop when an 11-year-old was on the hood of the car. … Nobody stopped,” Iskander testified at a prior hearing in the case.

Read more: Rebecca Grossman drove half a mile after fatally hitting two boys, seemed impaired, deputies testify

The murder counts against Grossman in the Sept. 29, 2020, crash are somewhat unprecedented as she has not been charged with driving under the influence, which is typically used to prove gross negligence in vehicular fatalities, based on evidence in the preliminary hearing.

Prosecutors say when they asked Grossman's legal team whether it wanted to settle the case, they got a response that they don't often encounter: Her attorneys said they wanted a dismissal.

Grossman has pleaded not guilty, and her legal team — led by Buzbee, a former Houston mayoral contender — says evidence will show that she wasn't speeding and that other vehicles went through the area.

Despite massive front-end damage to Grossman's SUV and witness testimony that she hit the two young brothers, her lawyers are expected to tell jurors that the car was one of many vehicles passing through the crosswalk at the time of the deadly incident, and that authorities have wrongly focused on her.

A yellow sign with a photo of two boys reads "Justice for Mark & Jacob."
A handmade sign outside the Van Nuys Courthouse in 2022 shows an image of Mark Iskander, 11, and brother Jacob, 8. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Grossman was driving behind Scott Erickson, a former Dodgers player, who prosecutors alleged was romantically involved with her and had been drinking cocktails with her at a nearby restaurant.

Buzbee says there are witnesses who'll testify that multiple cars hit the boys. "The defense's reconstruction experts will show that Grossman's vehicle was not the first vehicle to hit the children, and another eyewitness indicated that she was also not the last vehicle that made contact with the children," Buzbee said.

"These witness reports and video existed from the first night of the accident, and instead of trying to identify the other vehicles, the sheriff took the easy route and focused on the driver of the only vehicle that stayed after the accident occurred, Rebecca Grossman."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Ryan Gould, in pretrial-motion discussions, has pushed back, saying Grossman's lawyers have no foundation for the argument that any other vehicle struck the boys.

Buzbee argued in court last week that sheriff’s investigators never checked Erickson’s black Mercedes SUV for damage, even though he drove through the marked crosswalk a few seconds before Grossman.

He produced a photo of the black SUV that he alleged Erickson was driving; the image showed the car had some damage. But prosecutors say they have seen no evidence that the pictured damage is connected to the incident.

Taking this tack is risky, said Louis Shapiro, a defense attorney not involved in the case. The Times asked Shapiro about using the move as a way to shift blame and create reasonable doubt.

"Unless there is forensic evidence to support a theory that another car was involved, the jury is going to see this as a desperate attempt to absolve her of liability," Shapiro said, "and it could very much haunt her at sentencing."

Grossman’s on-site breathalyzer test showed a blood-alcohol content of 0.076%, slightly below California's legal limit of 0.08%. A blood sample taken three hours after the crash registered at the 0.08% mark. She is not charged with driving under the influence.

Read more: A speeding Mercedes. Two kids killed. Should a Hidden Hills socialite face a murder trial?

Prosecutors Gould and Jamie Castro plan to show that Valium was also found in Grossman's system and will argue that, together with the alcohol, the prescription drug impaired her driving.

Jurors will be allowed to hear that Grossman — who is married to Dr. Peter Grossman, a renowned plastic surgeon who heads the West Hills-based Grossman Burn Center — was in a romantic relationship with Erickson at the time of the crash. Peter Grossman, in a statement, has said they were separated at the time.

Prosecutors say Rebecca Grossman was just feet behind Erickson's SUV when she sped through the crosswalk.

"She is not guilty of any of the accusations that have been made against her," Buzbee said. "She was not impaired, she was not racing, she was not going the speed that they claim, and she never fled the scene."

Read more: Lawyer for L.A.-area socialite charged with murder for running over two boys says crosswalk was a danger

Erickson, who has denied any wrongdoing, was charged with a misdemeanor.

His attorney, Mark Werksman, told City News Service in 2021 that Erickson “wasn't racing. He's charged with one count of reckless driving. He wasn't driving recklessly. He had nothing to do with this accident, really, he didn't, and any suggestion that he did is just false."

The attorney said Erickson passed safely through the intersection before the crash occurred. "He didn't witness the accident or have any part in causing it or play any role in it," Werksman said.

Erickson's case was resolved, with a judge ordering that he make a public service announcement on safe driving. Neither he nor his lawyers have replied to requests for comment. He is on the prosecutors' list of more than 60 witnesses they could call.

Read more: Murder charges upheld against Hidden Hills socialite Rebecca Grossman

Graphic testimony from Iskander is expected at the trial. During a preliminary hearing in 2022, she testified that she and Jacob were wearing inline skates, 5-year-old Zachary was on his scooter, and Mark was on his skateboard as the family crossed the residential boulevard. Her husband and daughter were jogging nearby.

Iskander testified she could not tell whether it was Grossman's white SUV that struck her children, because she was diving out of the way with Zachary.

“The speed was insane,” she said of the two SUVs. “They were zigzagging with each other as if they were playing or racing," Iskander testified.

During the preliminary hearing, a deputy who specializes in crash incidents testified that he calculated Grossman was driving 71.7 mph when she struck the boys and that the car computer showed 73 mph. Under cross-examination, he said the older child, Mark, was struck by the vehicle and thrown 254 feet, the farthest he has known a human to be tossed in a crash.

To get a second-degree murder conviction, Gould and Castro must prove that Grossman acted with implied malice and knew the act of driving at a high speed in a residential area was dangerous to human life.

Read more: Woman faces murder charges following crash that killed two boys in Westlake Village

John Hobson, one of Grossman’s attorneys, said that “the evidence supports we have a tragic traffic accident,” but that there was no implied malice.

Prosecutors argue that that knowledge comes from her prior incidents. Jurors will probably hear from a California Highway Patrol officer who pulled over Grossman in 2013 after she was clocked going 92 mph on the 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills and warned her she could kill someone.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.