ASPEN - A Pitkin County jury on Friday returned not guilty verdicts on charges of reckless endangerment and third-degree assault against a former Aspen Skiing Co. lift operator who slammed into a 7-year-old boy during an off-duty snowboarding run last March.
Travis Lee Huffman, 22, of Pfafftown, N.C., declined to testify on his own behalf during the daylong trial. After the verdict was read at 6:40 p.m., he expressed relief and thanked his attorney, Mark Rubinstein of Aspen. The jury took about 90 minutes to deliberate.
What was expected to be a speedy legal proceeding ended up as a long day for all parties concerned because of the slow jury-selection process. At one point in open court, 9th Judicial District Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely expressed her displeasure with the Aspen Daily News and other media outlets over their pre-trial coverage.
Many potential jurors who arrived at the courthouse at 8 a.m. Friday morning were said to have read a newspaper story about a Thursday court hearing to determine whether a video of the incident could be shown at trial. The same article also covered the discussion between Fernandez-Ely, prosecutor Richard Nedlin and Rubinstein about the defense attorney's motion to dismiss the case.
Newspapers were removed from the courthouse when it became apparent that several would-be jurors had seen the article. Fernandez-Ely suggested that in the future, newspapers should not be delivered to the courthouse on days when a jury trial is scheduled. She also pointed out that a Denver television station and a local radio station had previewed the event.
Because of the media reports, the "voir dire" portion of the trial - the legal term for the examination of potential jurors - took an extra two hours, Fernandez-Ely said. Opening arguments did not begin until 1:30 p.m.
Nedlin portrayed Huffman as a selfish risk-taker who ignored his Skico training and had no concern for the safety of others when he sought to "catch some air" by flying off a "blind roller" on the Green Cabin run at Snowmass ski area on March 12. Huffman crashed into a 7-year-old Brazilian boy who was learning to ski under the supervision of his father and uncle. The youngster was taken to Aspen Valley Hospital and treated for bruises, but survived the incident.
"How do we know this all happened? Because the father just so happened to have caught this on his video camera. And you will see that video played in court today. And you will see [the boy] making his little wedge turns down this easy blue run, and you will see the defendant coming in and crashing violently with him," Nedlin said.
Rubinstein countered that the incident "was very tragic, very sad, but not criminal." He said Huffman's "heart sank" at the moment he was airborne and realized he was going to hit the child. Also, Huffman didn't know about the blind spot, his attorney said; he was simply cruising down the mountain like so many other Skico employees do during breaks or on their days off.
"I'm not suggesting that Mr. Huffman came over some kind of 'blind roller' - he was just coming down the hill," Rubinstein said. "As you might be familiar with Snowmass ski area, many of the intermediate runs have different undulations and rolls and flat parts and steeper parts, and perhaps this is an area where he was coming down an otherwise empty run, when no one was around, and suddenly there's children.
"'My goodness!' he's thinking to himself," the defense attorney said. "And boom! This is how accidents happen all the time, whether it be while skiing, on a bicycle run, in a car accident or any thousands of examples. It's an accident."
Neither the boy - whom The Aspen Times has chosen not to name because of his age - nor the relatives who were with him at the time of the collision, attended the trial. Nedlin called two witnesses: Snowmass policeman Franz Zedlacher and Skico ski-patrol supervisor Brett Beavers.
Zedlacher, who did not witness the incident but was called to investigate, said the father and uncle appeared upset and were behaving irrationally. He said they told him they tried to detain Huffman with a "bear hug" because they thought he was trying to run away from them.
Under cross-examination by Rubinstein, Zedlacher said the father and uncle's version of events changed as the investigation continued. The police officer added that Huffman accused them of hitting him in the mouth and back of the head.
But no charges were filed against the father and uncle because there were no witnesses to the alleged action, he said. Huffman was charged because there was evidence: the father's video.
In the audio that accompanied the video, which jurors watched Friday afternoon, a man is heard to be shouting obscenities at Huffman: "F--- you, motherf---er! I'm gonna kill you!"
Beavers testified that the "blind roller" Huffman flew off is well known to Snowmass Mountain employees. He also said that in 10 years of working on the ski patrol, he's seen many skier-on-skier collisions, some of them fatal.
When Nedlin asked him to describe his reaction to the video, Beavers replied, "It was scary."
Rubinstein sought to prove that much of the blame lay with the boy's father and uncle. He asked Beavers if "standing in a blind spot" could be a violation of the state's Skier Safety Act. He asked if collisions on the slopes were "a fact of life." In both cases, Beavers answered affirmatively.
But Nedlin asked if the accident could have been prevented.
"Yes," Beavers said.
"How?" the prosecutor queried.
"Slow down," Beavers replied.
In closing, Nedlin said Huffman made "a conscious choice to huck himself off a blind roller. He wanted to hot dog a little bit."
But Rubinstein inferred that the young boy's family was partly at fault for taking him to ski down a trail that wasn't kid-friendly.
"There are special areas [at Snowmass] for kids," he said. "But this happened on a blue run."