Chad Abraham

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May 24, 2005
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Father of dead teen blasts DA

The father of an Aspen High student who died after a car accident last summer criticized the district attorney's office for offering a misdemeanor plea to the teen charged in the case.In a letter to Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely, Tim Terral said the felony case may have been pleaded down because of a lack of staff in the 9th Judicial District. Five deputy district attorneys have resigned in recent weeks, with four of them citing the management style of top prosecutor Colleen Truden. The resignations have led critics to question the office's ability to prosecute felony cases and spurred a recall effort of Truden that proponents say will be launched in July.The turmoil at the district attorney's office has hit Terral and his family hard. Alex Terral, 17, a national merit scholar and varsity athlete, died a few days after suffering head injuries in a rollover crash in June 2004.The driver of the car, Dustin Hite, 18, was originally charged with vehicular homicide, a felony. Several weeks ago, Assistant District Attorney Vince Felletter offered him a deal in which he would plead guilty to the misdemeanor charge of careless driving causing death, Terral said."For whatever reason, possibly expediency or lack of staff, the new people in the DA's office agreed, against my wishes, to this lesser charge," Terral wrote. (The letter, dated yesterday, is reprinted below.) "I know the defense was happy, for they didn't want the truth to be public. Now I guess it never will be."The letter also says Hite was cited for reckless driving a few months before the June 27 accident. Hite received a plea bargain in that case, as well, according to Terral. He said that "a few days after I put Alex in the ground, I saw Dustin driving around town."Does this not argue for stronger punishment in this case?" he wrote.An emotional hearing Tuesday was wracked by confusion. Having accepted the plea bargain, according to his lawyer, Hite was apparently scheduled to be sentenced. But Felletter and defense attorneys Katharine Sullivan and Fredric Winocur disagreed over details of the plea agreement. The plea deal was filed in adult court, which is why Fernandez-Ely has taken over the case. It had been handled in district juvenile court under Judge James Boyd.It is at least the fourth case in the last two weeks in which a misdemeanor plea has been offered to suspects accused of felonies, according to court records.Winocur told Fernandez-Ely that there had been a "divergence of recollection" between himself and Felletter about the hearing."The plea is on the table, it has been accepted," he said.Felletter disagreed that an agreement had been reached.He was not available to comment after the hearing.Fernandez-Ely said she needed more time to familiarize herself with the case before Hite could be sentenced. She asked the Terrals whether they would be open to an alternative system of punishment in which Hite would meet with them to talk about the crime. The process involves reconciliation and more meaningful solutions, the judge said.Dabbing at her eyes with a tissue, Susan Terral held a framed picture of her son in court yesterday."The last 10 months, 26 days have been horrible," she told Fernandez-Ely. She said her family desperately needed "some resolution to get our dregs of a life back. Do I want this continued six weeks? I don't know if I can emotionally handle it. We need closure."Later in the proceeding, she said, "Shame on the lawyers and the judicial system. This is not a legal game, it's about what's right. It's my son who has been minimized."Fernandez-Ely urged the sides to meet and go forward. Hite may meet with the Terrals Thursday. Further discussions of the plea agreement, and the sentencing of Hite, if an agreement has been reached, are scheduled for Friday at 1:30 p.m.Chad Abraham's e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.comFather requests stiff penalityEditor's note: This is a letter drafted by Tim Terral, Alex Terral's father, in advance of yesterday's plea bargain and sentencing hearing for Dustin Hite. It was addressed to Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely, who has yet to approve the plea bargain.When Dustin caused Alex's death last summer, it was more than one death that resulted. A part of me and Alex's mother also died. A child is part of who you are. He shares your DNA, your family history, your memories, your hopes, your dreams. All that died with Alex. Of course Alex was special to us and his brother, Matt, but he was so much more than just our son and brother. He was special in so many ways. He was a brilliant student, a promising athlete, a great wit. But most of all he was a caring, sensitive, and thoughtful human being.Three separate people in the DA's office, which includes the previous administration, have said to me, "Whatever we do, it won't bring your son back." But what they could do, or more importantly what the court should do, is to send a strong message to teenagers that cars are not playthings to be used for risky "joyrides." And, if they do, the penalties will be severe.People in the Middle East who lose children become martyrs or suicide bombers. My intentions are a little more civilized. I would like to see penalties so severe for the kind of reckless behavior that Dustin engaged in so as to drastically reduce its occurrence.Dustin's family might argue that Alex and he were the best of friends, and that he loved Alex. To me this makes Dustin's actions worse. I compare it to a father who has his kids in the car and endangers their lives with his reckless behavior.Dustin's behavior on the night of June 24, 2004, was beyond irresponsible. It was reckless to the extreme and it was the direct cause of the death of my son. I think the appropriate punishment for such behavior should be more than a figurative slap on the wrist.I think his family would prefer he had no consequences. A few days after I put Alex in the ground, I saw Dustin driving around town. Obviously his family didn't see any need to restrict his driving privileges.A few months before the crash that caused Alex's death, Dustin Hite had received another traffic ticket for reckless driving. In this instance, he drove over a median and struck another car. His lawyers, similar to this case, had his sentence plea bargained down to a lesser charge. Ironically his sentence was to take the "Alive at Twenty-five" course offered by the Colorado State Patrol. It doesn't appear he learned much from that consequence. If that charge had not been reduced, Dustin Hite would have lost his license and Alex would be alive today. Does this not argue for stronger punishment in this case? When a child misbehaves badly, a loving parent doesn't simply allow an "I'm sorry" to suffice, he applies consequences to strengthen the lesson.If the punishment for Dustin's actions is a slap on the wrist or even a year in prison, it pales in comparison to the reality of the loss of this very special boy, and to the grief and torment Alex's mother, brother, and I will suffer until the day we die. Is that to be the only real consequence?From the start of this, my main concern was to learn the truth about what happened in this car crash. I wasn't particularly in favor of a trial, but if that's what it took to produce the truth, so much the better. The former administration in the DA's office and my family had agreed to pursue the charge of vehicular homicide, for we felt it was the appropriate charge considering Dustin's actions. Specifically the charge of vehicular homicide describes the actions as reckless with an automatic loss of license. The choice now has been given to Dustin to plead to careless driving, which doesn't even mandate a loss of his driver's license! When you pass another car on a double yellow line going in excess of 70 mph into a blind curve, that's not careless, that's reckless!For whatever reasons, possibly expediency or lack of staff, the new people in the DA's office agreed, against my wishes, to this lesser charge. I know the defense was happy, for they didn't want the truth to be public. Now I guess it never will be.Thank you,Tim Terral


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The Aspen Times Updated May 25, 2005 09:01AM Published May 24, 2005 12:00AM Copyright 2005 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.