Pitkin County judge not ready to throw out traffic-death case
A county judge is holding off dismissing criminal charges against an elderly man whose wrong-way driving killed a motorcyclist last summer.
One of Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely’s two written orders, presented at a hearing Monday in Pitkin County Court, cited Carbondale resident John Walls’ incompetence to face the charges because of his age and because he suffers from dementia.
“The court hereby finds that the defendant is incompetent to proceed, and there is a substantial probability that the defendant will not be restored to competency with the foreseeable future,” the judge wrote.
But the judge wasn’t ready to dismiss the criminal case, saying she will when “the court is assured that the community and defendant are safe.” A possible option is for the judge to take a civil commitment action against Walls.
The 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office had previously filed a motion to dismiss the criminal case based on a state evaluator’s determination that Walls isn’t competent to understand the charges against him or proceed with the matter.
Walls was 89 years old when he was driving on the wrong side of Highway 82 and struck and killed Basalt resident Patrick Dunn, 53, on Aug. 23. The collision happened in Pitkin County near mile marker 22. Walls was driving a 2003 Ford Focus eastbound in the westbound lane; Dunn was driving a 2002 Ducati motorcycle.
The fatal accident prompted the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office to file three charges against Walls: Careless driving causing death and reckless endangerment, both misdemeanors, and a traffic-lane violation.
The judge could launch civil proceedings, in which a determination would be made on whether Walls should be involuntarily committed.
“I don’t believe Mr. Walls qualifies as a person who is an imminent risk to him or others,” said public defender Jose Gonzalez. “At this point, we’re talking about someone who is fairly independent and does not present the risk of hurting anybody.”
Prosecutor Michael Warren disagreed.
“I think he is qualified,” Warren said.
The judge said she is considering bond conditions that would keep Walls under the care of an agency such as the county’s Health and Human Services Department. In the meantime, Walls’ son-in-law has filed an action in Garfield County for a guardianship and conservatorship, in which the son-in-law would oversee his day-to-day affairs.
The matter in Pitkin County returns to court May 19, when parties will discuss whether a civil commitment action will be taken against Walls.
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